Do you understand “Ten items or less?”
If you were standing in the supermarket queue with a handful of grocery items, you could count them, reach 10 and feel pretty sure that you could go through the (often ironically-titled) Quick Checkout. (Assuming you aren’t worrying about whether a collection of 4 rolls in one bag counts as one item or four. Argh. A bunch of grapes? How many items is that? Maybe one, if they are firmly attached to the stalk. But a few might fall off and tip the balance against you. )
Pedantically, you might think the sign should say “fewer.” However, a supermarket sign isn’t an English essay. In any case, modern grammar books are likely to suggest that observing modern usage reflects better style than sounding deliberately pompous. Well, I would, at least, setting myself up as grammar expert, in the face of the evidence that I’m not.
Pedant alert. I get as riled about misplaced apostrophe
(‘)s and stupid grammar as anyone does. Sentences like 🙂 such as “He asked my husband and I where we were going” are really annoying. This usage ignores the basic rules of grammar – confusing where to use subject and object pronouns. The offensive bit aspect is that it’s done just to sound formally correct. To evade the scary grammar teacher in the sky who might smite any sentence, at random, if it doesn’t sound stilted enough.)
Back to the supermarket. According to the BBC:
Tesco is to change the wording of signs on its fast-track checkouts to avoid any linguistic dispute.
The supermarket giant is to replace its current “10 items or less” notices with signs saying “Up to 10 items”.
Tesco’s move follows uncertainty over whether the current notices should use “fewer” instead of “less”.
The new wording was suggested to Tesco by language watchdog The Plain English Campaign.
What? “Up to ten items” is less confusing than “10 items or less”? No it isn’t.
There are ten items in your basket. Which checkout do you use? If the sign says “Up to 11 items,” you can walk through the Quick checkout, smugly confident that your basket contents meet the numeric criteria. But, it says “Up to ten.” The Plain English campaign thinks “Up to” means the same as “Less than or equal to.” It may do. I’m not sure.
I am sure that “ten items or less” includes the number ten. It’s right there, mentioned by name even.
Fear of breaking a rule about correct use of “fewer” or “less,” which is almost never observed in spoken English has led Tesco to make its signs ambiguous, where they were previously clear.
The Plain English campaign is taking the credit for this silliness. Use of plain English is a desirable goal. This campaign was started decades ago to challenge the bureaucratic language used in official documents. The valid point is that some documents are incomprehensible to anyone, particularly to people who are not very literate.
However, some items on their website suggest that they have come to interpret their role in “grammar and spelling police” terms.
For instance, they castigate a University lecturer for mildly suggesting that bad spelling isn’t the end of the world.
Dr Smith, a lecturer in criminology at Buckinghamshire New University, suggested that students and lecturers should be ‘given a break’ and allow misspellings of words such as ‘judgment’, ‘twelfth’, and ‘embarrassed’ (from the news page on the plain English campaign site)
They complain furiously that students can get good marks in SATS tests despite errors, as if the content is less important than the sub-editing:
… revealed that an essay littered with spelling and grammatical errors had received a higher mark than another, more literate one.
So, it is with a pedantic glee that I reprint this paragraph:
We are part of Liverpool and it’s history and culture so naturally we want to be part of the Capital of Culture celebrations. As the campaign grew out of the frustration of ordinary people in Liverpool with the way they were being treated we feel that it is right that we should return to the city at this time. We’ll be reminding everyone of the importance of clear language and how this can help people understand what to do and what is happening in their lives” says Chrissie
it’s. at this time instead of now. Missing commas where you need them to make sense of the sentence.
It’s hardly surprising that so many government documents (that are supposed to show a commitment to using “plain English” ) remain completely incomprehensible, given that the UK government takes so much of its Plain English advice from this organisation.