10 Items Or Fewer

While a co-worker and I were discussing a grammatical element in a story (such scintillating discussions we have around the water cooler!), the name of the Morgan Freeman movie "10 Items or Less" came up.

The common phrase "10 items or less" is grammatically incorrect. "Less" refers to volume, while "fewer" refers to numbers. Therefore, it should be "10 items or fewer."

We’re both well aware of this, but I brought up the movie to point out how the people discussing it on IMDB (Internet Movie Database – imdb.com) were ridiculously bent out of shape over it. The way I figure it, the movie title would have sounded silly as "10 Items or Fewer" since no one seems to put up signs like that.

As it turns out, she’s in the camp I found ridiculous. :)

We all have our different pet peeves when it comes to grammar. I’ve pretty much given up on less/fewer because pretty much everyone I encounter says "less."

My pet peeve is composed/comprised. The Beatles were not comprised of John, Paul, George and Ringo. They were *composed* of John, Paul, George and Ringo.

"Composed" means "made up," "constituted."

"Comprise" means "include."

The Beatles comprise John, Paul, George and Ringo. The United States comprises 50 states.

I edited the "Cat" Wikipedia article a few years ago, back when I used to do that a bit, and I changed "comprised of" to "composed of," and someone changed it back, giving the reason, "That change, while technically correct, is less idiomatic English."

Um, so? I wasn’t going for idiomatic English. I was going for *English*. Plus, if I’m writing or editing something straightforward, I don’t generally use idioms. I use things that are "technically correct"!

The definitions of compose and comprise are readily available in the dictionary (dictionary.com does list the grammatically incorrect usage of "comprised of" as an idiom). The differences are highlighted in the Associated Press Book of Style.

I may not like it that people write "comprised of" instead of "composed of," but what I really find strange is that people have come to question "composed of" as if THAT is the wrong phrase. Not only is a gramatically incorrect phrase making its way into the language (certainly not the first time; we probably would be surprised at some of the phrases that once were considered wrong or questionable), but people are questioning the *correct* version, like that guy on Wikipedia.

That explains why I really don’t edit Wikipedia articles. That was my very first contribution (of a total of 20), and I basically threw up my hands and said something along the lines of "I make a change this innocuous, and get reverted???" Wikipedia can be a battleground that is only slightly less volatile than Usenet newsgroups. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Skanderbeg for an example of how testy and lengthy the arguments can be.

The Wikipedia guy ended up coming back with a comprise of sorts: "made up of." Which makes perfect sense. But so did "composed of."

It’s not like I’m innocent of occasional bad grammar. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop myself from saying "borrow" when I mean "lend."

But I won’t write it.

2 Responses

  1. Julie Liew

    Love the blog, Laurie! The “fewer” and “less” thing bugs me, too, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I mix up the “comprised”/”composed of” quite a bit. Another common one, at least for newswriters, is the use of “drunk.” The phrase should be “drunken driving,” not “drunk driving.”

  2. Evan Hazard

    Laurie,

    Good for you. Another is convince vs. persuade. You convince people of the accuracy of something, you persuade them to do something. My next “Threescore and Ten” touches on this kind of thing, but without similar examples. It will be in Mollie’s hands shortly.

    This blog and “Trail Mix” are neat.

    Evan

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