‘Less than ten items’ is not wrong

I have already written about when to use fewer and less but I would like to address this phrase specifically:

supermarketLess than ten items.

Many people don’t like it – they insist that it should be fewer than ten items. Arguments rage all over the internet and people mutter angrily at signs above supermarket checkouts.

This is my take on the debate:

The use of less in this phrase is fine. Everyone should calm down.

Less is correct in this phrase because we are thinking of a total amount rather than individual units. It’s the same reason we would say less than five days or less than £10,000. We wouldn’t say fewer than 18 years old or fewer than 50 miles. This reasoning applies when the phrase takes a slightly different form, such as ten items or less.

This is how Pocket Fowler’s explains it:

Supermarket checkouts are correct when the signs they display read 5 items or less (which refers to a total amount), and are misguidedly pedantic when they read 5 items or fewer (which emphasizes individuality, surely not the intention).

And to be technical about it, the full-size Fowler’s adds:

In phrases like the above, less is a pronoun, not an adjective.

If you have trouble determining when to use less or fewer, the best thing to do is remember that fewer refers to number and less refers to quantity.


  • Oxford Dictionaries Blog
  • Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2015
  • Pocket Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Online



New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide

New Hart’s Rules is on my list of recommended books, and it is recommended by the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (of which I am a member). The publisher describes New Hart’s as follows:

For over a hundred years, Hart’s Rules has been the authority on style, helping writers and editors prepare copy for publication. The latest edition of this guide has been updated for the twenty-first century using the resources of Oxford Dictionaries and with the advice of publishing experts. Twenty-one chapters give information on all aspects of writing and of preparing copy for publication, whether in print or electronically.

Source: New Hart’s Rules

BookshelfI often use New Hart’s as a source for blog posts and for information that I give to clients. It’s compact but thorough and detailed. It’s easy to find the information you need and helpful examples are given. It may not directly address all possible scenarios (something The Chicago Manual of Style seems to have attempted) but the style guidance is easily applied in most circumstances.

Of course, it is important to point out that New Hart’s is a style guide and ‘correct’ style is often subjective. For example, Oxford style prefers -ize spellings for verbs but other styles may not agree. However, New Hart’s generally acknowledges areas where some style guides may give different advice.

When I started out as a proofreader, I found the chapters on how to style work titles, quotations and direct speech, and numbers and dates particularly helpful (as evidenced by the multitude of sticky notes all over my well-thumbed first copy). I think self-publishers would find it helpful as a guide to standards that would be acceptable in traditional British publishing and how to attain those standards in their own work.

The most recent edition of New Hart’s was (at the time of writing) released in 2014. The 2005 edition is, as far as I am aware, still perfectly serviceable, but the 2014 edition is updated and contains an extra chapter (on the differences between US and British English). It’s available in most bookshops and through online retailers, including Wordery and Amazon. You can also access it online for free if your library card gives you access to Oxford University Press resources – you can read more about that here.

If you have a copy or use the online version, please let me know what you think of it!

‘Waiver’ and ‘waver’

Waiver and waver are homophones, but they mean very different things. I often find that waiver is used when the writer actually means waver – I presume the mistake is made because the writer has the ay sound in mind.


  • the act or an instance of giving up a claim or right
  • a document recording the giving up of a claim or right


  • Candle flamesto hesitate between possibilities; to be indecisive
  • to swing from one thing to another
  • to become unsteady; to falter; to become weaker
  • to move back and forth or one way and another; to quiver or flicker

My tip: try to associate waiver with the giving up of a claim. It should be fairly easy to remember that waver is the spelling for everything else.


This week’s interesting word is a borrowing from Greek. A nycthemeron is a period of twenty-four hours – one day and one night.

It can also be spelt nychthemeron. It is a term that seems to be used predominantly in academic texts, but I think it would fit in nicely in works of a more fantastical nature.

The OED gives the earliest recorded usage as follows:

“Onely the shadowy Vale of the Night will be cast over them once in a Nycthemeron.”

– Henry More, Two choice and useful treatises. 1682

I have taken this explanation of the origin directly from Oxford Dictionaries Online because Greek language is not my speciality:

“From Hellenistic Greek νυχθήμερον period of a day and a night, use as noun of neuter singular of νυχθήμερος lasting for a day and a night from ancient Greek νυκτ-, νύξ night + ἡμέρα day.” (You can view the entry here.)

Day and night

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‘Coal’ and ‘kohl’

Coal and kohl are homophones. Coal is sometimes used when the writer actually means kohl, but I have never come across a ‘kohl mine’ or a ‘kohl fire’.


  • Coala black or brown rock consisting largely of carbonised vegetation
  • one or more lumps of coal
  • a piece of red-hot, glowing coal or other material
  • to provide with a supply of coal
  • to extract coal


  • a powder or substance used to darken the area around the eyes
  • to darken with kohl
  • an abbreviation of kohlrabi (a type of cabbage)

‘Climactic’ and ‘climatic’

The similar spelling here makes it so easy to use the wrong word, accidentally type the wrong word, or miss the incorrect usage when you are reading over your own work.

Climactic means ‘forming a climax’:

  • The viewers gasped during the climactic final fight scene
  • Mounting tension gave way to a climactic resolution

ClimateClimatic means ‘relating to climate or weather’:

  • My hair doesn’t react well to these climatic conditions
  • The researchers are worried about climatic change

My advice is to try to remember there is no extra c in climatic because climate does not have an extra c. Or there’s a more complicated association with climactic and cinema (because that’s where you often watch films with big climactic scenes).

‘Affect’ and ‘effect’

EffectAffect and effect are often used incorrectly, particularly in student essays. In most contexts, affect is a verb and effect is a noun. When you affect something, it produces an effect – and I think that is where some of the confusion stems from.


Affect as a verb means ‘to influence or change’ or ‘to make a difference to’, and it is the most common use of affect.

The new rules will affect thousands of people.

It can sometimes mean ‘to pretend’ or ‘to take on or adopt something pretentiously’.

I affected a happy disposition.
He was known to affect an American accent.

It has limited usage (usually related to psychology) as noun referring to an emotion or feeling.

His reaction displayed a happy affect.


Effect as a verb means ‘to do’ or ‘to bring about’.

I will effect change.

But the most common usage of effect is as a noun meaning ‘a result’.

It had an immediate effect.

The a, an or the test

If you struggle to work out which word you need to use, this simple test might help. Does a, an or the appear in front of it? Or if you inserted a, an or the would the sentence make sense?

The effect was insignificant.
It could an affect your lifestyle.

If the answer is yes, you probably need effect (the noun). If the answer is no, you probably need affect (the verb).

‘Gourmand’ and ‘gourmet’

MealGourmand and gourmet have similar meanings, and they can be used as synonyms. However, one is typically considered to be more complimentary than the other.

A gourmand is a person who enjoys eating and often eats to excess. The original (15th century) meaning was ‘glutton’. Although it later acquired the meaning of ‘a judge of good food’, gourmand is not usually a flattering description.

A gourmet is a person with a refined taste in food. It has always had this meaning (originating in the early 19th century). You can use gourmet attributively (e.g. ‘a gourmet meal’) but you cannot do so with gourmand.

If you wish to compliment someone on their excellent palate, gourmet is the word to use.


Oxford Dictionaries

Library2Have you got a library card? Here’s something you might not know: most UK libraries subscribe to resources from Oxford University Press (OUP). If you live outside the UK, it is worth checking if your local library has a subscription too.

It is a huge range of resources, but perhaps the key ones for writers are the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford Reference and Oxford Dictionaries online. There’s information about how to access them on the OUP’s website.

I recommend taking advantage of the premium resources on oxforddictionaries.com. The login page is here, and the library card login box is on the right-hand side. Once you have logged in you will see the Premium tab.

The premium resources are:

  • New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide
  • Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage
  • New Oxford Dictionary for Writers & Editors
  • Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage

If you want your work to conform to UK publishing standards, you should use New Hart’s as your guide. It is really very good.

The New Oxford Dictionary for Writers & Editors is a handy guide for any spellings or names you aren’t sure of, or if you want help with hyphenation and capitalisation.

Pocket Fowler’s does not contain all the nuances of the full-size version, but it is still very helpful.

And they are all available for free and from the comfort of your own home.


‘Faint’ and ‘feint’

They may be pronounced the same way, but faint and feint have very different meanings. Perhaps the most confusing usage is that of feint as a word for lined paper – the lines may be faint but the type of paper is feint (or feint-ruled).


  • barely perceptible; lacking clarity, brightness or volume
  • possible but unlikely
  • lacking conviction, force or enthusiasm
  • feeling weak and/or dizzy
  • a sudden loss of consciousness
  • to lose consciousness for a short time
  • to grow weak or feeble


  • a deceptive or pretend movement designed to distract
  • to make a deceptive or distracting movement
  • paper printed with faint or pale lines across it