My online ENG 350 “English Language” students and I were recently discussing the difference between Mass Nouns and Count Nouns: that is, why you say “I eat less pudding than my sister, so I have fewer empty pudding cups.” Because pudding is measured by mass, not by discrete units, you’d say “less pudding,” but because pudding cups can be counted, you’d say “fewer pudding cups.”
The one time most of us might question the use of “less” vs. “fewer” is at the grocery store, when signs at the express check-out lane say either “10 items or less” or “10 items or fewer.” Most of us probably grew up seeing signs that say “10 items or less,” so the technically correct “10 items or fewer” might sound strange to our ears. When several students remarked that they’d never seen a grocery-store sign that used the correct phrasing of “10 items or fewer,” I promised to look the next time I went shopping, as I was sure my old grocery store in New Hampshire had grammatically correct signs.
It turns out I don’t have (or, more accurately, can’t find) any photos of the express check-out lanes in Keene, NH…but at the Shaw’s/Star Market in Chestnut Hill, MA, the Powers That Be are updating the express check-out signs so that they say “fewer” rather than “less.”
I guess it’s never too late to Get Grammatical.