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Phew, what a stickler

[13 May 2013] The army of people who dislike supermarket placards declaring ‘Five items or less’ above certain checkout lanes (they prefer the standard English ‘Five items or fewer’) have found an ally in Albert Beale, who writes thus to the Guardian on 1 April:

‘When refusing to comply with a supermarket notice about “five items or less”, on the grounds that it was not validly expressed, and being told by a manager that the words I was arguing about meant the same thing, I responded: “So are you one of the less intelligent managers here, or are you one of the few intelligent managers here?”

That’s a great putdown but does it stand up to the scrutiny of other sticklers? Our office grammarian sniffs:

‘Yes, standard English prefers “less bread, fewer loaves” because it generally requires “less” with a singular and “fewer” with a plural. But Mr Beale is confusing the use of “less” as a comparative in “less intelligent managers” with the use of “few” as a noun in “the few intelligent managers”. There’s no connection between his “less” and “few” and the “less” and “fewer” of the placard.’

Glad we’ve sorted that out.

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