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A number of

Topic/tag: Language, short

When I write, I regularly find myself using the idiom a number of. The idiom appears in my musings, or at least my draft musings. For example, I might write, there are a number of reasons that I muse. The idiom appears in my scholarly papers. For example, I might write, a number of students raised concerns about pair programming.

But it’s not an idiom I should use [1].

A number of does not provide a very clear count. One is a number. Fifty-two billion, ninety-eight thousand, six hundred and three is also a number. So is negative five. And pi. A number of provides really little information about which I mean.

At times, I even add an adjective, as in a surprising number of Democratic candidates add me to their email lists [2]. Does that make it any better? No; it’s equally bad. Zero might be surprising, given my political views. Ten billion would also be surprising because there aren’t that many Democratic candidates.

I should probably use some or a few or many or about a dozen,, depending on the situation. I try to catch myself; I don’t always manage to do so. When I don’t, I should try harder. That way, I can reduce the number of situations in which I use number of [3].

Postscript: I suppose I could see what others mean when they use the idiom. At one place, Merriam Webster tells me that it means more than two but fewer than many : several. But in another, I discovered that one of the definitions of number is as follows:

  1. an indefinite usually large total. A number of members were absent. The number of elderly is rising.

Unusually large strikes me as more than many. And what does it mean if I write An unusually large number of members were absent? Is that doubly unusually large? Or is it just redundant?

Postscript: What unit of speech is a number of? I turned once again to Merriam Webster, but all it told me was that it’s an idiom.

Of course, the examples suggest that I shouldn’t trust Merriam Webster. In one example, they treat number of as an adjective; if a number of members were absent, members is clearly the subject. However, if a number of elderly is rising, number seems to be the subject. In the former case, a number of seems to be serving as an adjective for members. In the latter case, of elderly appears to be modifying number.

That makes it even harder to figure out what part of speech we’re dealing with.

Let’s consider the case in which a number of serves as an adjective. It seems strange to just call it an adjective since I tend to think of an adjective as a single word. Would adjectival phrase be correct? I’d think so, but Wikipedia says that an [adjectival phrase] is a phrase whose head word is an adjective. Is number an adjective? I traditionally consider number a noun. I guess it could be an adjective, as in the number five. But it’s clearly serving as a noun in number of. And Merriam Webster says it’s just a noun, even in the cases in which it seems to be using a number of as an adjective.

I shouldn’t trust the InterWeb. Maybe I’ll ask one of our friendly linguists.

Followup: One linguist says that in a number of x, the of x modifies number. He also notes that if I insisted that a number of x modifies x, I could call it a determiner, like some or all.

[1] Editing question: I originally wrote: But it’s an idiom I should not use. I changed it to But it’s not an idiom I should use. Which is better? And why?

[2] I wrote that sentence while musing about how hard it is to reach inbox zero. I’m pretty sure I ended up eliding it.

[3] And yes, the two uses in that sentence are okay. At the beginning of the sentence, it doesn’t matter how many there are; the focus is on reduction. At the end of the sentence, I’m using the idiom itself as the object of use, which makes the particular number irrelevant.

Version 1.0 released 2018-07-04.

Version 1.1 of 2018-07-05.