Ten items fewer or less? Explaining fewer fervor

By Curtis Honeycutt

In a classic episode of “Saturday Night Live,” Christopher Walken confidently declares, “I’ve got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell!” Today I’m not sure if I have a fever or a fervor (or both), but it’s about “fewer” and “less.”

Let’s delve into this widespread grammar debacle currently plaguing the English-speaking world at an alarming pace. When should you say less and when should you say fewer? You’ve probably heard to use less for things you don’t count and fewer for things you do count. As a general rule, this is true, but sooner than later you’ll run into a slew of exceptions.

Instead, think about it this way: use less for something singular and fewer for something plural. For example: I noticed less pulp in this orange juice this morning. You could also say: I found 55 fewer palpable pulp particles in this orange juice this morning. On its own, pulp is singular, so less is correct. Because you have plural pulp particles, fewer is correct.

Here’s where it gets tricky: when referring to time, distance or money, use less because we think of these types of things as singular amounts. For example: The distance from Earth to the moon is (on average) 238,855 miles. You wouldn’t say the distance from Earth to the moon are 238,855 miles. So, when you apply the singular or plural rule here, you could correctly say: This rocket we built in our garage is really fast; we’re already less than 100 miles away from the moon!

Now, what about the express lane at the grocery store? Is “10 items or less” correct, or should it be “10 items or fewer?” Although technically it should be 10 items or fewer, many argue that if a rule makes a phrase or sentence too cumbersome, drop it.

Both the IKEA store and Meijer grocery store near me have “10 items or fewer” express checkout lanes, which I appreciate. I have a hard time declaring my allegiance to either side, so I’m going to offer a third option: up to 10 items. This way, grammar grouches don’t get all grumpy and people who don’t care never cared in the first place. Just as long as people don’t try to sneak 13 bottles of pulpy orange juice in the express lane.

Curtis Honeycutt is an award-winning syndicated humor columnist and author. Connect with him at curtishoneycutt.com.

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