The less said about fewer the better

by / Wednesday, 17 June 2015 / Published in grammar, grammar rules, Uncategorized

The title of a recent article in The Telegraph online edition summed up the problems facing the new boss of the UK’s biggest retailer: “Tesco’s Lost Decade”.

Despite its 28% (lion’s) share of the market, the company has lost its way over the past 10 years and is now experiencing declining sales and poor credit ratings. It’s also enduring negative publicity on other issues, ranging from suppliers who feel they’re being squeezed unfairly through to disgruntled customers unhappy about their shopping experience. There are also environmentalists and other commentators grinding whatever axes they can find to attack the store.

Even wordsmiths like myself and others with a claim to expertise (or interest) in English have joined in on the act. There have been complaints about Tesco’s poor grasp of basic vocabulary and grammar, and the chief culprit is the humble sign that appears above selected checkout aisles in every store: “10 items or less”.

The first thing to say is that Tesco’s is not the only retailer using this wording… but as hinted above, the “Let’s bash Tesco’s” band-wagon is rolling, so various people are jumping on board with some word pedantry too.

The second thing to say is that the sign IS wrong – in terms of traditional grammar, at least: the word “less” should be replaced by the word “fewer”. The reason for this required change is simple – “less” refers to quantity and “fewer” to number.

Now, for many people, there’s not a lot of difference between these terms; they understand “quantity” in the same way as they understand “number” (which explains the existence – and prevalence – of the wording on the sign in the first place).

So the best way to recognise the distinction between the two words is to cite a different example. The style guide gurus William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (aka “Strunk & White”) provide a great one in their classic reference book “The Elements of Style“:

“His troubles are less than mine” means “His troubles are not so great as mine” (where “less” refers to quantity, or degree). In contrast, “His troubles are fewer than mine” means “His troubles are not so numerous as mine” (“fewer” referring to the number of troubles).

See the difference now?

If you believe it’s important to abide by the traditional rules of grammar, then the use of “less” in the sign may irk you… but probably not stop you from shopping at Tesco’s (although some of the other issues mentioned above might have that effect).

However, your own organisation may well be subject to different rules of engagement – assuming it isn’t the size of the retail giant. In other words, when similar errors creep into your company’s communications, the effects may be more serious and detrimental to the success of your business.

So, a spelling mistake or grammatical mis-step may cause a client (or prospect) to pause for a moment and (re)consider your organisation’s attention to detail. Frequent or obvious mistakes may cause them to question your intelligence and educational background (even though these may not be relevant to the product or service you’re hoping to offer).

This means that getting the words (and grammar) correct can play an important part in helping you win – and retain – business.

If you’re unsure about getting these things right, then RichWords is happy to provide you with advice and training, as well as originate and/or edit texts – just email to find out more.

You see, every little bit helps…





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