I’m in distress: Recently, I saw this sign at a supermarket: “15 items or less”; give me a sign that this didn’t happen.
Although this way of speaking and writing doesn’t actually bother me and I understand that this kind of mistake is… Whom am I kidding? I wanted to rip that stupid sign down!
Here’s the scoop: There are such things as countable and uncountable (mass)
nouns. For example, coffee is uncountable. We don’t say “1 coffee, 2 coffees, 3 coffees.” Now, my friend from Spain says, “Let’s have a coffee,” which I think is dear and European-sounding, but to be grammatically correct, he should say, “Let’s have a cup of coffee” or “Let’s have coffee”…or, even better, “Let’s have tapas, red wine, and chocolate!”
The same is true of spaghetti or flour, which, like coffee, is seen as a mass noun and is therefore uncountable. With an uncountable noun, use the word less. On the other hand, cups of coffee are countable: 1 cup of coffee, 2 cups of coffee. And strands of spaghetti or bags of flour or kinds of food are countable. With countable nouns, use the word fewer.
Please allow me to put these words into action:
I would like less flour in the bowl.
Give me fewer cups of coffee, but put less coffee in the coffeemaker next time.
If you eat fewer tapas and drink less red wine (or fewer glasses of wine), you might lose weight, but you won’t have as much fun.
So, when you stand in line at the grocery store and see a sign that says, “15 items or less,” don’t rip the sign down: Just smile and politely say to the cashier, “I’m not sure if I have 15 items or fewer than 15 items. Let me count them again.”
My English Quarters
Hallie Belt, M.A. and B.A., English