Pedantry, or, replacing one ambiguity with another

31Aug08

It’s one of the distinctive calls of the pedant, usually accompanied by a tutting sound or aggrieved sigh. While most grammatical errors in normal spoken language are allowed to pass unchallenged, accidentally saying “less” where one should have used “fewer” will almost always provoke comment from others.

Perhaps because it’s one of the few grammatical rules with clearly defined boundaries, or perhaps because it’s such an easy slip to make when talking. But there’s one place where it’s become traditional to point out, criticise or otherwise mock that grammatical error – the supermarket checkout line.

But now Tesco is spoiling everyone’s fun. Checkout queues formerly marked “10 items or less” will be relabelled – to say “Up to 10 items”.

I’m as much (probably more) of a grammatical pedant as the next person. But while I might have marked out the old signs as strictly grammatically incorrect, I never worried too much about them. They reflected a common mistake, and – this is the crucial part – were clear about what was allowed.

Now pedants in supermarkets will have to complain about the ambiguity of the new signs. Strictly speaking, they mean a maximum of nine items (compare “Up to and including 10 items”). So has Tesco reduced the number of items allowed through such aisles, perhaps in some time-saving exercise? Or have they replaced an ungrammatical sign with an ambiguous one?

Of course, the items limit in such queues is hardly rigidly enforced. It would take a mean shop assistant indeed to send someone to the back of the queue for daring to bring eleven items through the wrong till (however, having worked in supermarkets myself, there are customers for whom that seems entirely appropriate treatment). Some supermarket chains have dispensed with the numerical limits altogether, designating some tills “Baskets Only” or even choosing to dispense entirely with the concept.

But there is certainly merit in having signs that are clear to understand, especially in somewhere like a supermarket. And if, as the article suggests, the change is to improve clarity (after all, it was suggested by the Plain English Campaign) in the interest of avoiding disputes, it seems likely to fail. Instead of the patronising smugness of the customer who feels the need to point out the grammatical error, shop assistants will have to deal with customers inquiring whether ten items are permitted or not.

There are versions of the sign that might have been clearer. “10 items or fewer” is of course the grammatically correct version, even if it sounds a little stilted. “No more than 10 items” makes the required point, though it sounds a little combative. Even the punchy “10 items max.” would have done the job. But in the interest of short words in a short sentence, the ambiguous statement was chosen.

There’s a lesson in here somewhere, once you distance it from the relatively trivial world of supermarket queues. If something is unclear, ineffective, or simply bad, it should be changed. But ‘change’ is not synonymous with ‘improve’. Change for change’s sake by itself is not enough. Making things simpler, more effective, or just better are all laudable goals. Change is often required to make that happen. But it only works if the change is not just from something poor, but to something better.

Just something to ponder.

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