Subject: “Ten items or less” is just fine
Okay, I’ve just violated a principle of suspenseful writing by distilling my entire message into my headline. But I’ll bet it made you pay attention, because if you’re like most editors, you have a definite opinion about this one.
In my October 2 blog post about William Safire, I mentioned that a fellow “Lexicographic Irregular” was going to publish a remembrance of Safire, and I wasn’t going to steal his thunder about a specific point he made in the article. But now that the article has appeared (”The Maven, Nevermore,” by Ben Zimmer, in The New York Times Magazine, October 5, 2009), I can rant: I dearly wish that William Safire had never decided that “Ten items or fewer” was the correct way to style the sign above a supermarket’s express checkout — at least not to the point that he then felt compelled to persuade the Safeway grocery chain to change its signs from the disdained “Ten items or less.” I’ve noticed that the Whole Foods stores have painstakingly followed suit, and that is the problem: Safire’s campaign granted undue legitimacy to a misconception, and now it’s almost impossible to persuade the sign makers and customer service people otherwise — even when the result is something as patently idiotic as the following message I get when I send an e-mail to Fresh Direct, a grocery-delivery company: “Thank you for your message. We’ll respond in 24 hours — or fewer.”
How “normal” do the following sentences sound to you?
If the temperature is 20 degrees or fewer, we will keep the children indoors for recess.
When the truck is carrying a full load, it gets 15 miles to the gallon or fewer.
Most of these devices now cost $50 or fewer.
Please summarize the key selling points in 100 words or fewer.
If you work three days a week or fewer, you are considered half-time.
I could go on and on. The reason your instinct is to change fewer to less in the above sentences (unless you’ve had your instincts drilled out of you by too many visits to an acquiescent supermarket) is that each of the amounts in the above sentences represents a benchmark. When an amount is perceived as a metaphorical line — something one can go over or come under — it is notionally singular, not plural, and so less should be used, not fewer.
We generally don’t make mistakes with rates (miles per hour, dollars per hour, days per week, and so on), and that’s because the expression “X per Y” is perceived as a total amount. The singular rate (per hour, per day, per week, etc.) also separates the word with the plural marker on it (miles, dollars, days, etc.) from the alternative of or fewer/less, which helps prevent false attraction to the plural. Some people begin to be hesitant when it comes to time, temperature, and money, but most of us still get it right. When it comes to things that fall outside the familiar categories (rates, time, temperature, money), though, we often stumble.
And that’s where the problem with items on a list comes in: if the word items is plural, why does “ten or fewer” sound wrong? It’s because “ten items” is also a benchmark. If you come under it, you get the speedy line. If you go over it, you’re stuck behind the family with two carts, even if you have only 11 items. The sign doesn’t necessarily mean “ten items, or fewer items than that.” It can just as easily mean “ten items, or less than this benchmark.”
I am not about to mount a counter-campaign to persuade Whole Foods to see the light. But I did write to Fresh Direct, on the grounds that the company might want to know that it had taken things a bit too far and was making its customers snort (because I just know I’m Everycustomer). So far, I haven’t heard back, and the response message is unchanged. To its customer service people, I’m clearly another crank; that, to me, is a permanent — if relatively unimportant — legacy from William Safire.
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