It delighted me to see the introduction of DIY checkouts recently at my local supermarket, but perhaps not for the usual reasons you’d expect. Yes, it’s quicker to get through the checkout now, and no, I don’t have to chat to the checkout chick or rooster if I don’t feel inclined (which I enjoyed anyway). More important to me is that with the new checkouts came the removal of the former express checkout sign that read ‘12 items or less’. This sign had long bothered me, as it should have read ‘12 items or fewer’.

Confused by less or fewer? Here’s how it works.

We use the word ‘fewer’ with countable nouns. It’s straightforward. If you can count something, use ‘fewer’. We can count items, just as we can count apples; to be correct, we would therefore say fewer items, or fewer apples, not ‘less’. I have fewer apples than I really need for a crumble.

When to use less rather than fewer

It’s uncountable commodities such as sugar for which we may use the word ‘less’. I’ll put less sugar in the crumble this time.

Easy, eh? You have probably spotted the minor complication: packs or bags of sugar are countable. I notice the supermarket is stocking fewer packs of sugar than before. People are trying to have less sugar and salt in their diets.

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