Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Tesco - less is not the same as fewer

I read in The Age newspaper's Odd Spot today that Tesco, the British supermarket chain, is to change their quick-service lane sign from 'ten items or less' to 'up to 10 items'.

It seems the grammar police have won a small victory. I say, thank goodness Tesco didn't opt for 'Ten items or fewer'.

Fewer
might be the more correct word, but it's a mouthful.

All this reminds me of something I read in David Crystal's book, The Fight for English. He says it's easier to control written language than to make spoken language conform. However, that's not a bad thing, because when you're speaking to someone you have the opportunity to clear up any misunderstandings on the spot, but written language has to function without feedback from the reader.

I can't recall the last time I used the word fewer. I think it's gone from my vocabulary.

Uh, oh. I hope they don't come after me for assisting in the disappearance of a useful and precise word from everyday speech.

5 comments:

Vincent said...

I wonder if you are careful to use "whom?" and not just "who" all the time? And what about the case of pronouns? I always notice (and am careful to use correctly in speech) expressions such as "you and I" versus "you and me". I notice that BBC radio 4 presenters are careless about correct usage these days.

Obviously we cannot hold back the tide (reference to King Canute) so for me the usages, correct or incorrect, are markers as to a person's age, education and respect for old ways. & I try not to be prejudiced against those who trample on the old ways.

parlance said...

Hi, Vincent.
Thanks for visiting my blog - I love discussing language and it's great to hear from you.
I hope I won't go down in your estimation too much if I tell you I hardly ever use 'whom' these days. I'm aware of its function - more because of having learned German, than from being taught its use in English classes. I think most of my friends would have used it in the past but I have only one friend who regularly uses it now.
And, to further my crimes against English, I tend to use 'their' as a singular reference to a person whose gender is not known. (I hang my head in shame.)

Vincent said...

My dear, it's the gravitational pull of the majority. But as one gets older one cleaves to the gravitational and sentimental pull of one's own years.

I have vowed never to use "their" in that sense, and quite blatantly use "his" when desperate, on the basis that a woman may use "her".

But the corner I defend even more fiercely is to pronounce 1908 as "Nineteen-eight" and not "Nineteen-o-eight": for this is what I learned as a child and if it was good enough then ...

I don't mind what others do, and have noted that in films as far back as 1943, in military contexts (e.g. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) there were speakers who put in the "o". On the other hand there are a few still on the BBC (guests, not employees) who still pronounce dates the old dignified way, and I cheer when I hear them.

parlance said...

I would call this year 'two thousand and eight'. Is that what you would say?

Vincent said...

oh yes, I would. But it doesn't mean that the rules have to be changed retrospectively for 1908.