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Fewer items, less controversy in the checkout line

A supermarket chain avoids the choice between the informal and the hypercorrect.

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You don't have to follow the rules out the window. That's not a bad principle for writers and editors, or even signmakers, to bear in mind. There are times when the right choice between the irksomely colloquial and the achingly correct is to search for a third option.

The Daily Telegraph has reported that the Tesco supermarket chain will introduce new signs at its express checkout lines: "Up to 10 Items."

The express lines have hitherto been marked with signs for "10 Items or Less." Tesco's move is being seen as a retreat in the face of a relentless onslaught by militant grammarians insisting that it be "10 Items or Fewer."

The grammarians are, strictly speaking, right. But the "up to 10 items" formulation strikes this particular nit-picker as inspired. It skirts the fewer/less controversy and accentuates the positive. It builds up to a maximum rather than counting down from one.

Publications, particularly newspapers, often adopt rules that standardize certain spellings, ways of handling certain official titles, and the like. Such rules have the advantage of simplifying decisions for busy writers and editors on deadline, and of adding a subtle layer of consistency to a publication's prose. Sometimes, though, these mostly helpful rules cause other problems.

Here at the Monitor our style tends to favor "closing up" combinations that other publications might hyphenate – nonresident or noncitizen, for instance, instead of non-resident or non-citizen. But the other day we had a reference to people who do not have a college degree. Following the close-up rule out the window was going to leave us with "nondegree-holders." (I can see the T-shirts now: "My family paid $100,000 for my education, and all I got was this lousy nondegree!") We recast it to "those without a degree," and then when it came up again, opted to leave the hyphens in, non-degree-holders.


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