Five items or fewer

In one of my short stories from the other week (A meeting in the park) I used the correct grammar for the number of balloons my spies could expect to find in the museum. They would find “fewer” rather than “less”. This is something that is increasingly difficult to deal with in the English language because it is seen incorrectly all over the shop – quite literally ho, ho.

In Supermarkets there is almost always a “Five items or less” queue when it should, by rights be “Five items or fewer”. I do happen to know of one special pace in the UK where this isn’t true. Apparently the Paisley branch of Marks and Spencer there are three queues, two of which are labelled “Five items or less” and one which is labelled “Five items or fewer”. Maybe we need a group trip?

So for those struggling with the grammar how does it work? The answer is “Fewer” is right if there is a whole number of things that you are describing”. You can’t have “less” children because there are only a fixed number of the little darlings, you must have “fewer”. And to counter that there is always “less” time not “fewer”, because time is on a continuum. Basically if fractions are possible use “less”, if not use “fewer”.

So lets see how this works in my Supermarket example, here’s what I bought from the Supermarket the other day.

0.52 grams of Apples
1.2 Kg of Rice
1.25 packets of cereal (there was 25% extra free).

But I still had to use fewer, because even though there appears to be fractions in each of the items descriptions, each of them is a single thing. Well except the apples, they were unwrapped and really meant that I had 7 items and so I had to go into a different queue anyway, even though I was rightly sure that they would appear on the bill as a single item, I couldn’t be sure that the person standing behind me tutting would see it that way.

One thought on “Five items or fewer

  1. Nick Ollivère says:

    I have one question, though: can you name a practical situation where you actually need to know the difference?

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