16 September 2008

A small victory for plain English

Tesco, the British supermarket chain, has bowed to grammatical pressure and decided to correct the signs in its stores which indicate service for customers with “ten items or less”.

According to most guidelines on English grammar and usage, the correct form is “ten items or fewer”. However, many people consider this quite clumsy and not in common use, so Tesco has sidestepped the problem by rewording the signs to say “up to 10 items”:

From now on, signs in new stores are to say “up to 10 items” after a long running argument with those who have objected to the use of the word “less” in that context.

Many have argued that the signs ought to read “ten items or fewer” instead of “ten items or less”. Their argument is that the word ‘fewer’ should be used when it refers to quantities that can be counted. ‘Less’, they say, should refer to quantities that cannot be counted.

The new form of words comes from a suggestion by the Plain English Campaign.

I’m a big fan of plain English, after having read the Australian Government Style manual, which mandates it. The clean style of choosing the shortest words and clearest sentence forms makes a refreshing change to many documents.