Why You Can’t Buy ’10 Items or Less’ and Other SAT Grammar Errors

Reader Carly F. wrote me in response to the article, Top 11 Grammar Mistakes the SAT Hopes you Make to ask about another common error:

I heard that when grocery stores say "10 items or less" that that's actually wrong. Is that true? And if so, what should it be?

Great question, Carly.  And believe it or not, this is a grammar question that I have seen pop up on the SAT writing section several times.  The correct answer is that the sign should say, "10 items or fewer."

The general rule is that if you can count the things you're talking about, you should use the word 'fewer'.  If you can't count them, use 'less'.  Since we can count 'items', we should say "10 items or fewer."   The same is true for the opposite words 'greater' and 'more'.

Don't be confused by the rule about counting.  The distinction is this: we may be able to count cups of coffee, but we can't count 'coffee' itself.  So we  say, "you should drink less coffee" or "you should drink fewer cups of coffee."  Likewise, while we can count grains of sand, we can't count 'sand' itself.  "This beach has less send" or "this beach has fewer grains of sand" are both correct.

This rule also applies to 'amount' and 'number':  "If the amount of studying you do is high, you will score better on your SATs and get into a larger number of colleges."

'Fewer' and 'number' are words that we use so infrequently in the English language that they may as well not exist.  But while these distinctions are now archaic and known only by the staunchest of grammarians, the SAT will expect you to know the differences.  Earn those easy points by remembering these rules.

Thanks again, Carly.  This grammar rule has been added to the common SAT grammar errors article.

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Discussion


Whereas the concern over grammar is commendable, it would be more effective if it were supported by correct spelling - in one of your examples the word "sand" is misspelled "send"!!

- Rena Smith, 09/01/08 at 7:19 am

Hi Rena, thanks for letting me know! I have corrected the error.

- Brian Cavner, 09/01/08 at 8:59 am

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