GLORIO PATSY JR. IS CORrect that the supermarket sign “less than 10 items” should read “fewer than 10 items” (The Mail, 11/18), but he does Washington City Paper copy editors and writer Clara Jeffery a disservice when he chastises them for using the phrase “less than 50 yards.” The reason Patsy finds this “error” in so many newspapers is that it is not an error. The 50 yards are a single distance, not 50 separate items.
According to the usage manuals that address the issue (and even junior-high English textbooks), “less”—not “fewer”—is used with distances and other measurements. Just as it is correct to say “less than half a mile,” it is correct to say “less than two miles” or “less than 50 yards.” Would Patsy say, “He is fewer than 6 feet tall” or “She makes fewer than $30,000 a year”?
In Patsy’s own words, “only vigilance and education” will overcome such errors.
Cleveland Park, via the Internet