Perhaps my mood’s been rattled lately – we know how strange this time of year can be – but, I was a bit off today. After a couple of days manning the homefront with a computer and DVDs my big diversions, I went to the supermarket this afternoon.
I was standing in line, and I’m not sure if I was thinking about grammar or if I just happened to notice the signs at the express check-out counters. I may well, indeed, have been scornfully reproaching the management about the whole ’12 items or less’ thing that you hear so many grammar nuts (disclaimer: I have tendencies toward such nuttiness) complain about. Suddenly, I realize the sign did not say less; it said “fewer.” Fewer?
This never happens: someone had created an express check-out sign on which the appropriate quantifier was used for count nouns. Well, strike me refreshingly surprised.
I looked at that sign and, in a rather cinematic first-person point of view fashion, my eyes flashed over the other express check-out signs. “Fewer.” “Fewer.”
Well, I’ll be…
Now, don’t blame me. Grammar has a strange way of seducing people into passionate defenses or attacks on dumb things like commas or capitals or count nouns. You know it’s happened to you. You don’t need to be a grammar nut to have really laid into someone about beginning a sentence with ‘but’ or to have fired back when they dared lay into you. For some strange reason, this instance of correctly-used grammar was so, so pleasant that, even though I felt making any praising comment to the teenage clerk might be going too far, I did just that.
Now, I’m pretty clearly articulated. But, today was one of those flub-the-point, leave-out-crucial-information-so-your-meaning-gets-lost days. My young cashier, a girl in high school, perhaps – boy, should I have known better! – was busy putting her all into scanning my ground beef and pork loin. All of a sudden, I burst out with, “May I compliment you on your sign.” At least I gestured to the ’12 items’ notice stuck on the register.
The cashier scrunched up her face, but didn’t miss a beat with the grocery-scanning, and said, “Huh?”
I tried to explain. “The sign,” I said. “It says ’12 items or -‘”
Damn it. This one said ’12 items or less.'” Obviously, the sign-maker had been grammatically confused.
“Ah, well,” I stammered, “well, usually it says ‘less, and this one says ‘less, but that one and that one say ‘fewer,’ which is right. It should say ‘fewer.’ That’s the right way to say it. And…ah…I just wanted to say well done.”
She looked puzzled. Clearly, this had not been a good idea.
“You’re supposed to say ’12 items or fewer,’ not less, and you do say it on those signs -well, not on this one – and that’s great because people who are grammar nuts – well, like me – care about these things and always complain about this.”
I doubt she’d ever heard anyone complain.
At this point, the neighboring cashier was finished with her own customers and listening to our conversation. Grinning. “Hee, hee. ‘Grammar nut like you,'”she echoed.
She seemed nice. This could so easily have gone wrong.
My own cashier had at some point cottoned on to the meaning of my mutterings and remarked, “I wonder why it’s right to say ‘less’ sometimes and ‘fewer’ other times.”
Good question. Respectful, logical, and not at all reflecting a there’s-a-crazy-lady-at-my-counter attitude. I appreciated it.
So, I explained succinctly about count nouns and how some quantifiers like ‘fewer’ must be used with them. All the while, I thought, Good grief, I’m giving a grammar lesson while I buy broccoli.
Really, it hadn’t occurred to me that I’d need to do that. Of course, I needed to. How does anyone in her right mind think that she can say, “May I compliment you on your sign,’ and not think that she’s going to have to explain herself?
Walking away from that surprisingly not altogether unpleasant experience, I realized this was another literature and life melding moment. I mean, if you consider a well-written situation comedy to be literature (I do) then this was classic Felix Unger. Only, Felix would have beamed with pride and boasted in Wagnerian tones that his neighborhood supermarket had not only well-refrigerated frozen vegetables but a good grammar sense, as well.
Meanwhile, I was a pile of gibberish, which, I suppose, is why I could leave the store feeling at least slightly confident that I wasn’t being laughed about as I walked through the parking lot. Felix would not be so lucky. But, then again, Felix wouldn’t care.