Rules can overrun their purpose, in grammar and in life

The "grammar vigilante" strikes again.
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The "grammar vigilante" strikes again.

OPINION: Britain has a new outlaw crusader. His targets are not criminals, but merchants who fail to use apostrophes properly. In the dead of night, he creeps around adding or removing them to store front signs.

The vandal styles himself a "grammar vigilante". The irony, of course, is that what he is correcting is not grammar, but punctuation. The vigilante is not immune to the iron law that those who correct the language of others can be relied upon to make mistakes when doing so.

I know the type all too well.

When I was at university I worked at a supermarket. Part of my job was putting up with shoppers teasing about the "10 items of less" sign above the express lane. The legend should read "10 items or fewer" say the self-appointed guardians of grammar.

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Some of them weren't even joking – they appeared to take offence.

These were customers, so you had to grin and bear it. Now that I am on the other side of the counter, I am at liberty to dispel this nonsense. You see, in the context of a supermarket express lane, "10 items or less" is a valid formulation.

According to the objectors, the rule is that "less" is only used to describe things in a non-countable form. "Fewer" describes things that are countable. "Tom drank less water than Harry", and "Tom drank fewer bottles of water than Harry," are good examples of the difference.

You can count individual items in a supermarket basket. Thus, you should use "fewer" in any injunction against taking too many of them through the checkout. So say the objectors, anyway.

Not necessarily, actually. There is a strong case for "less" in this context. Indeed, you can even argue that it is the preferred word.

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It's not that the general rule is completely misguided. It's just not the only rule. There are other considerations that factor into the right word selection.

For example, when it comes to stating some measurements by degree, "less" is better by common sense. Money, time and physical dimensions are all good examples for this. You wouldn't write, "fewer than twenty dollars", "fewer than a week ago", or "fewer than five inches", for instance. This is despite the fact that dollars, weeks and inches are all gradations that are countable.

The express lane sign refers to the order as a single collection, rather, and not to individual units. In those circumstances, "less" is more natural. As Fowler's Concise Dictionary of Modern English Usage says: "'Supermarket checkouts are correct when the signs they display read five items or less (which refers to a total amount), and are misguidedly pedantic when they read five items or fewer (which emphasises individuality, surely not the intention)."

There will be those who disagree. There may be manuals and style guides that insist upon "fewer". Even if this is the case, the matter is less clear than the prohibitionists make out.

One thing that is clear is that we with more tolerance for "less" have history on our side. Like many things the subject of misguided correction, it has a fine pedigree. The Oxford English Dictionary cites no less a person than Alfred the Great in support of the usage.

Since the ninth ruler was one of the great patrons of the English language, he's not a bad act to follow.

According to Merriam-Webster's dictionary, insistence upon fewer became vogue in the 18th-century. Some writer expressed a stylistic preference for "fewer" and the fashion caught on. What started as fashion hardened into perceived law.

In that light, the preference for "fewer" resembles other rules of questionable provenance. The prohibition on starting a sentence with a conjunction is one. The ban on ending with a preposition is another.

This may seem like a petty subject for a newspaper column. And maybe it is. Yet, I really believe there is some social value in taking pedants down a peg or two.

The existence of grammar is important. Without it, communication is impossible. But like all doctrines, the rules of language exist for a purpose. In this case, to preserve meaning and promote clarity.

That being so, there are almost always situational nuances to good English. This is sometimes lost on those who see themselves as sticklers for proper language. A good rule of thumb is that if you can't explain the reasons for a claimed rule, it might be unwise to insist upon it.

If a sentence sounds right, and doesn't cause confusion, the chances are it's not too offensive.

So if you're one of those shoppers who have been giving supermarket employees a hard time, please stop. The case against "10 items or less" is far from clear. If anything, the preponderance of evidence seems to favour the supermarkets.

Sometimes less really is more.

 - Stuff

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