Some or any? Majority or plurality? The many (how many?) ways to describe amounts.
Many writers and speakers toss quantities around with great imprecision.
How many, though, is “many” authors and speakers? How great is “great imprecision”?
In casual conversation we might toss around quantities with reckless abandon. Our intent might be to emphasize or de-emphasize a preponderance of something.
Consider the word “majority.” In an election, a true majority means one vote or more over 50% of the voters. That’s different from a plurality: the highest total or percentage in a contest of three or more candidates. For example,
If Candidate A got 13% of the votes, Candidate B got 47%, and Candidate C got 40%; Candidate B wins, with a plurality of 47%. (If you’re wondering why those numbers don’t add up to 100%, Mickey Mouse got some write-in votes. He always does.)
‘Most’ or ‘the Majority of’?
Most of the time, you can write or say “most” rather than “the majority of.” It’s quicker and clearer. When precision counts, as in the election described above, it’s best to make it clear whether you mean “majority” or “plurality.”
Often—and again, how often is “often”—we talk about small numbers of people or things. Still, that can be vague: Is “several” more than or fewer than “a few”? What about “quite a few” as opposed to “quite few”? Is “a bunch” less than “a lot”?
Fortunately, we have modifiers that make things even more nebulous: “approximately,” “about,” “around” and good old “roughly.”
And if you’re talking about an approximate date and want to make an academic impression, you can dust off “circa,” a Latin word that means “round about.” Latin scholars love that one.
Those do come in handy, however, when the alternative is to make a flat-out guess.
In “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” Pseudolus asks, “How many geese in a gaggle?” Erronius shrugs and says, “Seven?”
A light dawns on Pseudolus, who then sends the old man on a journey—seven trips around the seven hills of Rome.
Such is the price of precision.
‘Some’ and ‘Any’
As for “some” and “any”: These two stand alone as vague quantifiers.
Do you have some sense about what’s going on?
Do you have any sense about what’s going on?
The second is a little insulting. The words “you nincompoop” are implied at the end.
Now, when “some” or “any” is used in a compound word, the implication offered—or the inference drawn—can vary.
Drop by sometime.
Drop by anytime.
In those examples, “anytime” is more inviting.
How much more? Well, you know—a bit more, a little, a jot, an iota, a tad more.
And what about “a couple”? A “couple” is two—except when it’s not. “We’ll be back in a couple of minutes,” Squiggly and Aardvark might say. Go ahead; count out 120 seconds, and see whether they’ve returned.
Also on the subject of time, how long is a “while”?
We can modify that word with even more vagueness if we want—"a little while” or “quite a while.” Meaning what, exactly?
“He’s been gone quite a while now.” Three hours? A fortnight? A decade? “Yep, quite a while.” OK, then. Thanks heaps for clearing that up.
Obviously, it’s not only Albert Einstein who believes time is a relative concept.
As for “a little while,” there are lots of expressions for that: the blink of an eye, nothing flat, a moment, an instant, a flash.
There are also “a trice” and “a jiffy.” Under British standard measurements, there are 12 trices in a jiffy. However, a metric jiffy has 10 trices. (That last part is completely made up.)
Speaking of fiction, in the movie “Pulp Fiction,” characters employ two quaint coinages for a brief passage of time.
In one, Mia promises Vincent she’ll join him “in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”
In another scene, there’s this exchange:
Butch says to Fabienne: “Have a nice breakfast. I’ll be back before you can say ‘blueberry pie.’”
Fabienne, not wanting him to leave, blurts out: “Blueberry pie.”
Butch says, “Well, maybe not that fast—but pretty fast, OK?”
Other imagery can convey fleeting moments: a heartbeat (or a heart murmur, as some say), a New York minute, a tick of the clock, a split second.
Longer terms, of course, don’t get any more specific. Which is longest, or shortest—an era, an age, an eon, a period, or an epoch?
Hmmmm, I guess only time will tell.
As we’ve seen from the “Pulp Fiction” example, you can spice up your writing with clever or even nonsensical approximations, especially fiction writing, but if you’re writing about sports, polls, election results, recipes, and other times when the quantity actually matters, stick with specifics whenever you can.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Rob Reinalda is a Robinson Prize laureate for excellence in editing and is the founder of Word Czar Media.