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Less wrong than you think

D
o you get all worked up when you see a supermarket checkout lane labeled "10 items or less"?

Well, you shouldn't. Yeah, yeah, countable items are "fewer." But the sign doesn't say "10 or less items," and it doesn't necessarily mean "10 items or less [than 10 items]." I'm not always the most charitable reader, but I see "10 items or less" and I read "10 items or less [than that]." Problem solved. Besides, "10 items or fewer" sounds ridiculous.

An older dispute in the fun-with-implied-words genre involves than. Are you taller than I, or are you taller than me? Answer: Both. That's how short I am.

If you don't want to risk angering the purists, go ahead and be taller than I (am). But if you're a regular old tall person and not a tall professor of English, you probably didn't mean to imply the word am. You meant to say you're taller than me, and you're right. I don't mind being treated as an object.

William Safire also doesn't mind. Bryan Garner does mind, at least in anything but the most informal writing. The technical explanation (I had to look this up, of course) is that than is supposed to be a conjunction, not a preposition. Many people feel strongly about this. A high-school classmate of my wife's argued the point, and was disappointed that I didn't agree, when I met him at a recent class reunion. So file "than as a preposition" alongside "hopefully as a sentence adverb," "host as a verb" and "media and data as collective singular nouns" in the "correct, but use at your own risk" category.




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