I popped into my local Supermarket for some fresh fruit and vegetables the other day. There was a sign saying APPLE’S AND ORANGE’S REDUCED so I added two bagfuls of them to the plum’s, pear’s, pepper’s and potato’s already in my trolley then walked the length of the checkouts till I found a reasonably short queue. When it came to my turn, the check-out girl just looked at my basket then pointed to the sign above the till: FOR CUSTOMERS WITH FIVE OR LESS ITEMS
Sorry, she said. You’ve got six items.
You’re sorry, I said. Listen. That sign doesn’t mean anything. It’s not even proper English.
She shrugged. The COMPLAINTS desk’s over there she said, pointing. Next.
The woman at the Complaints desk listened to me very politely then called for the manageress who also listened to me very politely. Language wasn’t static, she told me. Old rules sometimes have to give way to modern usage. Anyway, five items can be seen as a single unit in which case ‘less’ is perfectly appropriate.
So the customer isn’t always right? I asked her.
It all depends on the context, she said. And smiled sweetly.
Even though it is more expensive, I now do my shopping at Marks & Spencers, queueing quite happily with all the other pedants at the till that says FIVE ITEMS OR FEWER.
Good grammar is worth paying for.