Tesco, a big UK supermarket, is to change the wording on signs at some of its checkouts from '10 items or less' to 'Up to 10 items' in response to a request by the self-appointed language watchdog, the Plain English Campaign, and to 'avoid linguistic disputes'. Linguistic disputes! I wish! I'm a frequent shopper at Tesco, and can't recall ever hearing anyone having an argument about linguistics there!
There are a couple of things to say about this story. First of all, the phrase 'ten items or less' is not necessarily wrong. The website Ask Oxford has this explanation regarding less and fewer: 'This can be tricky when referring to quantities. For example, we say less than six weeks, not fewer than six weeks, because we are not referring to six individual weeks, but to a single period of time lasting six weeks.' (See http://www.askoxford.com/asktheexperts/faq/aboutgrammar/lessfewer?view=uk ). Ten items is a quantity, so it could, therefore, be argued that the phrase 'ten items' in 'Ten items or less' is regarded as a single amount.
That's not my only niggle with the rewording story, however. If anyone thinks that 'Up to 10 items' is clearer than the old version and completely unambiguous, they are in for a nasty surprise. I would be happy to bet that people's definitions of 'up to' are very different. If I have ten items in my shopping basket, can I use this checkout? Some people will say 'yes' and others 'no'.
Many forms ask you to tick up to 3 boxes. Most people would agree that you could tick 3 boxes if you wish. But could a 16-year-old travel cheaply if the sign said 'Half price for children up to 16'? Chances are, no. Many big organisations and companies are well aware of the ambiguity of the phrase 'up to', which is why most train companies say 'Children (aged 5 to 15)' or 'Children aged between 5 and 15'.
Kent Reliance Building Society has a Wishmakers account (no apostrophe), which is described as 'an easy access savings account for children up to 16 years of age'. Further down the page is the sentence 'On their 16th birthday, the balance of the account will be transferred to a new account of their choice'. (http://www.krbs.co.uk/wishmakers.aspx ). So, Kent Reliance Building Society would expect me to have a maximum of nine items in my shopping basket to use the fast-track till.
The mental health organisation Mind says this on its website: 'In 2002, the population of the UK was an estimated 59.2 million. Children aged up to 16 made up 20 per cent of the population (11.8 million), while young people aged 16-24 amounted to 11 per cent (6.5 million)' (http://www.mind.org.uk/Information/Factsheets/Children/Children+and+Young+People+and+Mental+Health.htm ). It's clear that Mind, too, thinks that the phrase 'up to 16' means 'less than 16'.
I anticipate more 'linguistic disputes' in the future. But it has got Tesco in the news now, and will do so again, so no doubt they are happy!