Dear VOA/NDE Listener:
You asked why at an express checkout at Walmart there is a sign that says "20 items and less", and not "20 items and fewer".
Generally, the rule is to use "fewer" before a count noun (books, students, pens, pencils), and "less" before a non-count noun or mass noun (water, population, traffic, furniture). For examples, less oil/fewer eggs; less food/fewer meals; less manpower/fewer workers.
In the Walmart express counter story, the sign should be "20 items or fewer." I've seen some signs such as in Wegmans, a grocery store, saying "10 items or fewer".
However, to be fair, in idiomatic English--and more and more in formal usage--"less" is being used with a plural noun denoting "time", "money" and "distance". For example: There are less than two minutes to play the game. She makes less than $US 30,000 a year. We have less than three miles to go.
In these cases, the countable elements (minutes, dollars, miles) are treated as an unbroken unit and the word "less" is then acceptable, according to Professor Michael Sheehan, formerly of City Colleges of Chicago.
Thanks for your feedback.
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