There are many reasons why people stand in supermarket queues and tut away to themselves. Quite why shops choose to close almost every till at lunchtime, when business people head off en masse to buy their sandwiches, is one of life’s great mysteries (like ‘Does God exist?’, ‘Why do men have nipples?’ and ‘What’s the point of Sarah Ferguson?’).
For those of us who enjoy being grumpy, however, supermarkets provide another great joy – the ‘10 Items Or Less’ aisle. Apart from the fact that the person in front of you is always carrying 11 items and paying by cheque, the sign itself inspires hatred in pedants for being grammatically incorrect. (Even more infuriatingly, supermarkets have been told about this fact many times and seem not to care. You might ask: “Why should they care? It’s perfectly clear what the signs means.” And you’d be right in many ways. But other people being right never stopped me complaining before and I’m not about to start now.)
The sign should really read ‘10 Items Or Fewer’. If you are referring to a single noun, like ‘shopping’, the comparative word for a smaller amount should indeed be ‘less’. (Even though your shopping might consist of many separate items, the word ‘shopping’ itself is a single noun.) But if you are referring to a plural noun, like ‘items’, the comparative word for a smaller amount should be ‘fewer’.
Unlike the rather vague term ‘shopping’, which might involve tonnes of food or just one banana, a plural noun like ‘items’ allows us to be very specific. By talking in terms of ‘items’, therefore, we can clarify if we are buying one apple or hundreds of bananas. In short, we can say if we are buying 10 items or fewer.
So, I have less shopping (single noun) than you because I have fewer items (plural noun) in my basket than you. You are buying less fruit than me because you are buying fewer bananas.
Perhaps none of the above really matters very much, but if supermarkets want fewer complaints about their signs, and less aggravation from pedantic customers, why don’t they just follow the rules?