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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Ten Rants or Less

I've alluded on previous occasions to the fact that I'm no longer annoyed by (most of) the lapses in grammar and punctuation that infest our daily lives. I'll give the occasional chortle when I see a particularly egregious example, but that's about it.

Try as I might, though, there's one thing that pisses me off. It's the ubiquity of the "Ten Items or Less" sign that one sees in every supermarket.

Yes, it should be "Ten Items or Fewer". We all know that. I've explained on many an occasion the difference between "less" and "fewer" (only to people who asked; I promise), but if I'm walking down the street and I see the wrong word being used, I cheerfully walk on by. I don't care. In nearly all cases, the meaning is clear; that's all that matters.

The same is true of the supermarkets, of course; no one is confused by the word "less". I'm sure some prescriptivist dolts work themselves into a semantic knot trying to justify their complaints, but let's face it; we all know exactly what the sign means.

So why get all worked up about it, then?

Quite simply, it's because there are so many prescriptivist dolts out there. There can't possibly be a single supermarket chain in Ireland (or, I imagine, the rest of the world) that doesn't regularly receive complaints about the outrageous flouting of the rules of grammar in these appalling signs.

And yet those signs persist. Why?

I can't think of a valid reason, but of the invalid ones, only one seems vaguely plausible.

Some marketing asshole has decided that "fewer" is too high-falutin' a word to be used with the public. Tesco is the Supermarket of the People, and to have a sign that says "Ten Items or Fewer" would be to suggest that they're above the hoi-polloi, and the great unwashed are unworthy of shopping in such an august emporium.

In other words, using correct grammar is a sign of snobbery.

To which I can only say "Bollocks."

Tesco isn't alone, of course; Dunnes does it too. So, I imagine, does every other supermarket. Is this a case of herd mentality; if one does it, the rest must too? I've no idea. In fact, I may be wrong, and that no one who's ever made one of those signs has any idea of correct formulation. But I doubt it.

To use the wrong word is forgiveable. In fact, I'm a little uncomfortable using words like "correct" and "wrong" in this context; they may be apposite from a grammatical point of view, but it suggests a value judgement that simply isn't there.

To use the wrong word deliberately, though, is just ridiculous. It's condescending, and suggests that supermarkets -- or at least the marketing departments thereof -- have a view of their customers that's downright insulting.

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