When you see people fuming in the “10 items or less” line at the grocery store, you probably think it’s because the customers in front of them have more than ten items in their cart. But maybe it’s because they think the sign should read “10 items or fewer.” Our neighbors across the pond are already taking steps to avoid such “linguistic disputes.”
As with most word usage errors, we get confused because we hear the words used interchangeably, not because it’s difficult to learn the difference between them. In fact, it all comes down to one simple question: can you count the individual items? If so, use “fewer.” If not, use “less.”
So, to use the grocery example, you would say “fewer” because you can see just how many items someone has brought to the checkout. (The Chicago Manual of Style even uses “grocery items” as an example. They also offer their own handy hint to “use ‘less’ with singular nouns and ‘fewer’ with plural nouns.”)
I hope this post will bring less stress and fewer language altercations in the grocery store.