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Page last updated at 13:34 GMT, Monday, 1 September 2008 14:34 UK

When to use 'fewer' rather than 'less'?

The Magazine answers...

Tesco trolley
Tesco is phasing in the changes

Tesco is changing its checkout signs after coming under criticism from linguists for using "less" rather than "fewer". But it's not just huge, multinational supermarkets that get confused about this grammatical point.

The grammatical question of fewer versus less has been raising the hackles of plain English speakers for years.

But now Tesco is replacing its current "10 items or less" fast-track checkout notices with signs saying "Up to 10 items".

According to a spokesman for language watchdog The Plain English Campaign, which helped Tesco come up with an alternative, "saying up to 10 items is easy to understand and avoids any debate".

What rules of grammar confuse or irritate you?
Send us examples using the form at the foot of the story

But when is fewer linguistically correct, and when is less more accurate?

Both words are used as comparatives - fewer meaning "a smaller number of", less meaning "a smaller amount or quantity of" according to A&C Black's Good Word Guide.

But confusion stretches back more than 1,000 years, to the time of King Alfred the Great (9th Century), says the Plain English Campaign, and substituting less for fewer is still common in informal speech, especially in the US, it says.

'Less' means not as much
'Fewer' means 'not as many'
'Fewer' when items that can be counted individually

The Plain English Campaign has a simple rule of thumb to help everyone: less means "not as much," whereas fewer means "not as many".

Fewer should be used when you are talking about items that can be counted individually, for example, "fewer than 10 apples". Less is correct when quantities cannot be individually counted in that case, e.g. "I would like less water".

But it can be tricky when referring to quantities, says Marie Clair from the Plain English Campaign. For example, we say less than six weeks, not fewer than six weeks, because we are not referring to six individual weeks, but to a single period of time lasting six weeks.

Some people get "really roused up" about the misuse of less or fewer, she says, and words that describe quantity, degree or amount seem to perplex people.

Phrases like "10 items or less" or "up to 50% discount" are retail speak and it would be much better to use language "from people on the streets," she says. Indeed, Tesco is not alone in committing this grammatical faux pas in public - the Good Word Guide notes that a Post Office advertisement in the Guardian stated: "Please remember, on Tuesdays and Thursdays there are less queues in the afternoon."

Amount refers to a sum of money or a quantity of something that is not counted in discrete units - number refers to something that can be counted in individual units
Farther means a longer distance - further means to a greater degree or extent
Source: Plain English Campaign
"Plain English doesn't want to be too pedantic about language, although '10 items or fewer' is grammatically correct, it can sound cumbersome.

"I just had a phone call from one member of the public who said 'not more than six items' would be much more effective - we've been brought up mathematically with 'more than' and 'less than', so it makes sense," she says.

For Tesco, testing any solution with the intended audience is more likely to gain successful understanding than simply following the rule. And English grammar, like all other aspects of language, changes through time.

And Ms Clair says we are more familiar with "less, lesser and least" than "few, fewer and fewest" these days.

'Rotten' language

But Ian Bruton-Simmons of the Queen's English Society is less forgiving.

Language should not be confused because it weakens it, he says.

"It's common sense - fewer is for numbers of separate items or people, less is for quantities not thought of in numbers: there were fewer people in the shops because there was less money," he says.

He thinks language has been "rotten for a long time" and says the "efficiency" of words has been lost by "PR men such as David Cameron".

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"Things are always 'very clear' or 'absolutely clear', when they should simply be clear," he says.

For Ms Clair, modern speed of communication is partly to blame.

"Although texts, e-mail and phones have brought great advantages and more creativity, spelling and grammar has slipped," she says. "For many people, Year 7 at the age of 11 or 12 was the last time they got any formal foundations in grammar - it has created a lost generation," she says.

Send us your examples of confusing grammar rules, using the form below.

The past tense of the verb "to lead" is "led". The past tense of the verb "to read" is "read". Confusing?
Tony Cima, South Cerney

The use of "Paninis" or even worse, "Paninos" to mean more than one Panino. As an essentially Italian word, the plural of panino is Panini. There should be no such word as either Paninos or Paninis!
Ian Cameron, Scunthorpe, England

"10 items or less" means I can take 10 items to the checkout. "Up to 10 items" sounds like I can only take nine. Has this really made anything clearer, or have Tesco reduced the number of items I can take to a fast track checkout?
Ant, London

I hate it when people use "your" instead of "you're". For example, "your going to regret that" instead of "you're going to regret that".
John, St Albans

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