English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Thanks a millions

Q: I would say a house costs 3 million, but my mother-in-law (an ex-teacher of English) insists that it should be 3 millions. Who is right, and why?

A: You’re right. We’ll leave it to you to break this to your mother-in-law.

The term “million” (like “thousand” and “hundred”) is normally singular when preceded by a quantifier like “four” or “several.”

Examples: “Four million homes are affected, but only two million have been evacuated.”

We can understand your mother-in-law’s reasoning here. She regards “million” as a noun in “he paid 3 million,” and reasons that a noun modified by a plural number should be plural: “he paid 3 millions.”

But nouns that stand for numbers don’t act the same as ordinary nouns.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that the noun “million” is an “unmarked” plural—it has no plural ending—when “modified by a numeral adjective or (freq.) a quantifier.”

Here are some of the examples given in the OED, along with their dates:

“v mylȝon off fynest gold” (“5 million of finest gold,” c1478);

“a thousand milion, Rejoysing” (c1530);

“between four and five million in the kingdom” (1780);

“a thousand million of pounds sterling” (1856);

“brave nation of forty million” (1915);

”six million of his fellow Jews” (1972);

“several million more” (1975);

and “sold three million of them” (1991).

In this respect, the OED says, “million” can be compared with “dozen” and “hundred.”

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) has a discussion of “million,” and provides a few general rules about the singular and plural uses:

“When modified by a preceding quantitative word (a numeral, many, several, etc.) and followed immediately by a noun, million is unchanged in form (two million people, several million pounds).”

And if no noun follows? Fowler’s says, “Million (not millions) is used in the type Among the eight million are a few hundred to whom this does not apply.”

The usage guide also says that “a million” is “sometimes used elliptically” to mean “a million pounds” or “a million dollars.” All that’s deleted is the currency.

So while Fowler’s doesn’t say so directly, it’s reasonable to assume that “3 million” (not “3 millions”) would be short for “3 million pounds” or “3 million dollars.”

When the currency symbol is used instead, the word is always singular, as in “£3 million” or “$3 million.”

When an “of” phrase follows, Fowler’s says, “the plural is normally used (many millions of votes were lost),” although idiom allows the singular in phrases like “a few million of them.”

As for the word’s history, the OED notes that “million,” meaning “a thousand times a thousand,” first appeared in written English in the 14th century as both noun and adjective.

English borrowed “million” from Old French, but its ultimate source is the classical Latin mille (thousand,) which is also the source of the English “millennium” (a thousand years) and “mile” (etymologically it means a thousand paces).

The OED’s earliest recorded use of the noun is from William Langland’s long poem Piers Plowman, composed some time before 1376): “Manye mylions mo of men & of wommen.”

In older writing, according to Oxford, the term was often seen in the plural when modified by a number: “200 Millions” (c1595);  “near eighty millions Sterling” (1790); “This four millions was taken account of” (1902).

These days, however, the singular is the common idiomatic usage: “he rakes in 20 million a year.”

The earliest adjectival use in the OED is from a manuscript of The Visions of St. Paul that dates from around 1390: “Þen kneled Poul and Mihel And a Milioun Angeles.” (“Then kneeled Paul and Michael and a million angels.”)

Like Fowler’s, the OED notes that the noun “million” is used elliptically to mean “a million coins or units of money of account of some understood value.”

When money is the subject, the plural “millions” is seen more often when there’s no number: “they have millions in the bank” … “she made her millions in the  market.”

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English English language Expression Grammar Usage

The third degree

Q: In your 2012 post about “master’s degree,” you say the plural is “master’s degrees,” but you don’t say why. I can see why one person can have three “master’s degrees” since he is the master in question. But what if three people have them? Don’t these become “masters’ degrees”?

A: No, the plural is still “master’s degrees,” no matter how many scholars have them.

“When you pluralize the phrase as a whole,” we wrote in 2012, “only ‘degree’ gets the plural ‘s.’ The adjective ‘master’s’ doesn’t itself become plural.”

Now for the “why”!

Many people would call “master’s” here a “possessive,” and therein lies the problem. A better term would be “genitive,” a case that includes the possessive as well as many other kinds of relationship, as we’ve written before on our blog.

The compound “master’s degree” is an excellent example of the genitive at work. It indicates an adjectival relationship between “master’s” and “degree.” It describes the type of degree, not who possesses it.

So whether you’re talking about several degrees or only one, several scholars or only one, the adjectival part of the noun phrase stays the same: “master’s.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, for example, would label “master’s” an “attributive genitive” or “descriptive genitive.”

In a section devoted to these constructions, Cambridge uses the example “two bachelor’s degrees.” (Note the singular “bachelor’s” and the plural “degrees.”)

In many fixed expressions, the genitive modifier doesn’t change even though the expression as a whole has both singular and plural forms.

Besides “bachelor’s degrees,” Cambridge uses the example “fisherman’s cottages,” which it says denotes “cottages typical of those lived in by a fisherman.”

We can think of some other genitive modifiers that are singular though the noun they modify can go either way: “summer’s day” and “summer’s days” … “busman’s holiday” and “busman’s holidays” … “boatswain’s mate” and “boatswain’s mates” … “plumber’s wrench” and “plumber’s wrenches” … “this Mother’s Day” and “three Mother’s Days in a row.”

By the same token, some genitive modifiers are plural and stay that way, though the noun they modify goes both ways.

Examples: “old people’s home” and “old people’s homes” … “girls’ school” and “girls’ schools” … “women’s soccer team” and “women’s soccer teams” … “boys’ club” and “boys’ clubs” … “farmers’ market” and “farmers’ markets.”

Of course, where there’s actual possession and the modifier isn’t merely descriptive of a kind or type, the possessive adjective changes in number (as with “the book’s jacket” and “the books’ jackets”).

But add one “master’s degree” with another, and you have “two master’s degrees.” For another source, we turned to Words Into Type,  which is widely used by journalists and other writers. It has this to say:

“A substantive phrase containing a possessive—master’s degree, for example—is changed to the plural by adding s to the second word.” The examples given: “master’s degrees, debtor’s prisons.”

A final note about the apostrophe. Standard dictionaries, as well as The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed., section 8.29), use the apostrophe in “master’s degree.” But as we wrote in 2008, when a plural noun is used as the modifier, some organizations don’t use an apostrophe.

This is why one program will call itself a “Writers’ Workshop” while another is a “Writers Workshop.” This also accounts for such names as “Publishers Weekly,” “Diners Club,” and “Department of Veterans Affairs,” as the Chicago Manual points out.

But the manual recommends (section 7.27) that the apostrophe be dropped “only in proper names (often corporate names) that do not officially include one.”

So it recommends retaining the apostrophe in compounds like “boys’ clubs,” “consumers’ group,” “taxpayers’ associations,” “farmers’ market,” and so on.

[NOTE: This post was updated on March 24, 2018, to match wording in a later edition of the Chicago Manual.]

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

A septuagenarian girlfriend?

Q: I am 74, widowed, and “seeing” a former female high school classmate of the same age. Calling her my “girlfriend” sounds ludicrous and I loathe “significant other.” The word “partner” usually means same-sex partner, so that is not applicable in our case. English needs a new word to describe a committed, romantic, sexual relationship between septuagenarians! Where is Shakespeare when we really need him?

A: English has lots of ways for lovers—married or unmarried, young or old—to address one another. The two of us call each other (please don’t cringe) “honey bunny” and “sweetie pie.”

A problem arises, however, when one member of an older unmarried couple has to refer to the other in speaking with outsiders. As you say, “girlfriend,” with its girlish associations, doesn’t quite suit a woman in her seventies.

Maybe Shakespeare could come up with the perfect fit, but none of the words we can think of (“sweetheart,” “friend,” “steady,” “soul mate,” “lady friend,” and so on) seem right.

If we weren’t married, we’d probably refer to ourselves as “companions” when speaking to others. It’s not very felicitous, but we can’t think of anything better.

Technically, there’s nothing wrong with using “girlfriend” for your septuagenarian honey. We’ve checked half a dozen standard dictionaries, and all of them define the term as a woman of any age in a romantic or sexual relationship.

When “girlfriend” showed up in English in the mid-19th century, it simply referred to “a female friend; esp. a woman’s close female friend,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from the August 1859 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine: “A demure little widow, much more gay and girlish than any of her girl-friends when she chose to forsake her rôle.”

In the late 19th century, “girlfriend” took on the sense you’re asking about: “A female with whom a person has a romantic or sexual relationship; a female partner or lover.”

The dictionary adds that the term refers to “a female member of an unmarried couple, in some contexts esp. a young couple whose relationship is conducted on a relatively casual basis.”

The first Oxford citation for the romantic/sexual sense is from the dedication in a book of medieval poetry edited by Frederick James Furnivall and published in 1892: “To the memory of Teena Rochfort Smith my much-respected and deeply-regretted girl-friend.”

(Furnivall, the second editor of the OED, left his wife for Rochfort Smith, a Shakespearean scholar who died in 1883 at the age of 22.)

The dictionary’s amorous citations for “girlfriend” referred to young women at first, but the usage has widened in recent decades to include older women.

Here’s an example from the Jan. 4, 2001, issue of the Daily Telegraph in London: “A pensioner literally saw red when his 79-year-old girl-friend cancelled their wedding for a third time.”

Interestingly, “girls” wasn’t always a girlie word, as we point out in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions.

In about 1300, when the word made its first known appearance in print, a “girl” was a child of either sex, and “girls” meant children, period.

In the 14th century, for example, the poem Piers Plowman refers to a children’s Latin grammar book as a “gramer for girles.” And in the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer refers to small children as “yonge gerles.”

But in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, the word began to mean female children, and by the end of the 15th century the androgynous meaning of “girls” was lost.

[Update, April 27, 2015. One of our readers sent a few comments, which we’ve edited: “I’m 83 and my partner is 81.  And yes, we do describe each other as ‘partner.’ Our locality has a procedure for filing as domestic partners. The position I held at the time of our official agreement required such a filing so that my partner could be on my medical plan.  I agree that referring to him as my ‘boyfriend’ would be incomprehensible to anyone who knows me or him; ‘boyfriend’/‘girlfriend’ just doesn’t fit at our age. I really don’t care if we’re thought not to be a heterosexual couple.  I think your correspondent should just relax.  When introducing this lady he should say, ‘Have you met Sally?’  Let the other party make any determination without further comment.”]

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Canada (or Canadian?) geese

Q: Why are they Canada geese, not Canadian geese? After all, we have Canadian bacon and Canadian whisky.

A: Some English speakers do indeed refer to this large waterbird as a “Canadian goose,” but a majority prefer “Canada goose” as the common name for Branta canadensis, according to online searches.

The four standard dictionaries we’ve consulted, reflecting popular usage, list “Canada goose” as the common name for the North American bird, though two of them include “Canadian goose” as a variant usage.

Birders and ornithologists generally accept the popular usage when referring to the goose by its English name. The website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, for example, refers to the bird as “Canada goose” and describes it this way:

“A familiar and widespread goose with a black head and neck, white chinstrap, light tan to cream breast and brown back.”

The National Audubon Society also refers to the bird online as “Canada goose,” and notes, “This big ‘Honker’ is among our best-known waterfowl.”

In 1758, the Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus included the Canada goose in the 10th edition of Systema Naturae, which classified animals, plants, and minerals.

But Linnaeus, writing in Latin, didn’t use the term “Canada goose” in the 10th edition. He referred to the bird as Anas canadensis, a protonym, or early version, of the now-accepted scientific name, Branta canadensis, or “black goose of Canada.”

(Linnaeus used Anas, classical Latin for duck, as the genus for ducks, geese, and swans. Branta, now the genus for black geese, is of unknown origin but may be related to old Germanic names for similarly colored waterbirds.)

The earliest reference to the bird in the Oxford English Dictionary is a 1772 citation from Hudson’s Bay Birds, by Johann Reinhold Forster: “The Canada geese are very plentiful at Hudson’s Bay.”

The OED has only one other citation for the usage, from the Penny Cyclopaedia (1838): “The Canada Goose generally builds its nest on the ground.”

The dictionary, which has no citation for “Canadian” goose or geese, notes that the noun “Canada” is used attributively—that is, adjectivally—“in the names of various commercial products, animals, and plants.”

In addition to “Canada goose,” the OED cites “Canada jay,” “Canada potato” (Jerusalem artichoke), “Canada rice” (an aquatic grass), “Canada thistle,” “Canada violet,” and others.

In the 19th century, writers used the attributive noun (“Canada”) as well as the adjective (“Canadian”) in referring to the goose.

For example, Meriwether Lewis, in a May 15, 1805, journal entry during his expedition with William Clark, uses the adjective in reporting “a small species of geese which differ considerably from the common canadian goose.”

And The American Universal Geography (1812), in listing birds of the United States, says, “The Canadian goose (Anser canadensis) is a bird of passage, and gregarious.”

In The Birds of America (1827-39), John James Audubon uses the attributive noun: “The Canada Geese are fond of returning regularly to the place which they have chosen for resting in, and this they continue to do until they find themselves greatly molested while there.”

And in Ornithological Biography (1835), Audubon describes a “curious mode of shooting the Canada Goose I have practised with much success.”

Audubon says he sinks a hogshead in the sand, covers himself with brushwood, “and in this concealment I have killed several at a shot; but the stratagem answers for only a few nights in the season.”

We’ve come across several theories about why English speakers generally prefer the term “Canada goose” to “Canadian goose.”

The silliest one is that John Canada—described variously as an ornithologist, a taxonomist, or a taxidermist—named the bird for himself. We haven’t found a shred of evidence to confirm this or that such a person even existed.

Another theory is that English speakers use the attributive noun “Canada” for the goose because canadensis  in the scientific Latin name means “of Canada.”

But the ornithologist and zoologist Richard C. Banks, quoted on, has said “the English name of a species is not directly related to the scientific name or its ending.”

Banks says the common names of birds probably develop simply because the people who use them prefer them to the alternatives.

In his book Obsolete English Names of North American Birds and Their Modern Equivalents (1988), Banks notes that the Canada goose has had many other names, including “tundra goose,” “common wild goose,” and “ring-neck goose.”

Pat Schwieterman, a contributor to the Language Log, notes that the adjectival form is typically used when the names of countries modify nouns, while the attributive form is generally used when the names of states or provinces modify nouns.

He cites such avian adjectival examples as the American crow, the Cuban parakeet, and the Jamaican lizard cuckoo, along with attributive examples like the California condor, the Arizona woodpecker, and the Louisiana waterthrush.

We can cite many other examples, notably the American robin, as well as many exceptions, including the subject of today’s post: the Canada goose.

Finally, Laura Erickson, who writes and broadcasts about birds, says on the mailing list of the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union that the Canada goose “gets its name from its breeding range.”

“It is of course perfectly acceptable and correct to call one a ‘Canadian goose’ if you see its passport or some other verification of its citizenship,” she adds.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Comparison shopping

Q: A lot of style guides distinguish between “compare to” and “compare with,” but the Oxford Dictionaries website says this distinction is rarely seen in practice. They’ve always seemed interchangeable to me. What do you think?

A: The usage note that got your attention—in the US edition of Oxford Dictionaries—describes the traditional rule, then adds: “In practice, however, this distinction is rarely maintained.”

The British edition of Oxford Dictionaries goes even further, saying “the distinction is not clear-cut,” and the two phrases can be used interchangeably.

The traditional rule can be summarized this way: “Compare with” is used to examine for similarities and differences (often between things of the same type). “Compare to” is used to show a similarity (often between things that are quite different).

It’s possible that the Oxford editors are overstating the case. Yes, English is losing the distinction between “compare with” and “compare to,” but it’s not quite lost yet.

It may be gone, however, by the time Pat publishes a fourth edition of her grammar book Woe Is I. She included the old dictum in the third edition, but played it down: “Don’t lose sleep over this one. The difference is subtle.”

In fact, the distinction is so subtle that some modern usage guides and standard dictionaries disagree on exactly how “compare with” and “compare to” differ.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), for example, says both “compare with” and “compare to” are normally used to examine for similarities and differences, while Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) says only “compare with” is used this way.

However, the two usage guides agree that “compare to” is generally used to point out similarities.

The Collins English Dictionary, generally following the traditional rule, says “compare” is usually followed by “to” when showing similarities, and by “with” when showing similarities or differences.

The online Merriam Webster’s Unabridged says either preposition can be used for either purpose.

We’ve checked eight standard dictionaries in all, and no two are alike in describing the use of “compare with” and “compare to.”

Confused? You’re not alone. Then is anybody paying attention to the traditional rule? Well, sort of.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage examined modern examples of how “compare with” and “compare to” were actually used by writers.

The usage guide found that the old rule “is more often observed than not” when “compare” is used in the sense of “liken”—that is, to show similarities. Among the examples cited are these:

“The deeds of modern heroes are constantly compared to those of Greek and Roman epic and legend” (Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition, 1949).

“They were blue, but a blue so deep that I can only compare it to the color of the night sky” (Robert Penn Warren, Partisan Review, fall 1944).

“Though to be compared to Homer passed the time pleasantly” (William Butler Yeats, The Trembling of the Veil, 1922).

However, the usage guide did find some literary examples in which “with” was used in the “liken” sense.

In a Feb. 2, 1953, citation from the New Republic, for instance, Stephen Spender discusses a poem in which “images seen are compared with sounds heard.”

The editors of the M-W usage guide found “more variation in practice” when “compare” was used in the sense of “examine so as to discover resemblances and differences.”

“Our citations show that more writers use with (as the basic rule prescribes) than to, but the numerical difference between the majority and the minority is not as great as for the ‘liken’ sense,” they wrote.

The usage guide includes examples of both “compare with” and “compare to” used in the “examine” sense. Here are two of them:

“But he is at least a forerunner of what is now called Humanism, of which I must here say something, if only to contrast it and compare it with the Aestheticism of Pater” (T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays, 1932).

“Of five children two died in infancy and of the other three only Susana could be compared to her ancestors in fiber” (George Santayana, Persons and Places, 1944).

The M-W guide adds that it’s often difficult to tell whether a writer is using “compare” in the “examine” or the “liken” sense. It cites the Santayana quote above as an example of such ambiguity.

Yes, it’s a fine mess, all right. You asked us for our opinion, and here it is.

First of all, it’s not something to hyperventilate over. Although a lot of good writers follow the traditional rule, others don’t.

For the time being, we’d recommend using “to” if “liken” could be substituted for “compare.” Otherwise, let your ear decide—use whichever  preposition sounds better and seems more natural to you: “to” or “with.”

If you’re interested, we discussed the history of “compare” on the blog a few years ago in a post about words of equivalence.

English got the verb from French, but it ultimately comes from Latin, where comparare means “to pair together, couple, match, bring together,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

When it was first used in English writing in 1447, the OED says, “compare” was generally followed by “to” and meant “to speak of or represent as similar; to liken.”

Here’s an example from Thomas Starkey, written sometime before 1538: “The one may … be comparyd to the body & the other to the soule.”

The OED says a broader sense emerged in the early 1500s: “to mark or point out the similarities and differences of (two or more things); to bring or place together (actually or mentally) for the purpose of noting the similarities and differences.”

Historically, the OED citations show, “compare” has been accompanied by either “with” or “to” when used in the sense of marking similarities and differences. We’ll end with examples using each preposition.

“Whats … the world it self … if compared to the least visible Star in the Firmament?” (From Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, which first appeared in 1621 though there were later editions.)

“To compare Great things with small.” (From John Milton’s Paradise Lost, 1667.)

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English English language Grammar Style Usage

Parenthetical plural(s)

Q: Which of these sentences is correct? (1) “Select ‘yes’ if you plan on bringing guest(s) in addition to the one listed above.” (2) “Select ‘yes’ if you plan on bringing a guest(s) in addition to the one listed above.”

A: Neither #1 nor #2 works, we’re sorry to say.

There’s no graceful way to use the parenthetical plural—“(s)”—here without a rewrite. Perhaps, “Select ‘yes’ if you plan on bringing any additional guest(s).”

As volunteers on land-use commissions in our New England town, we’ve come across many parenthetical plurals in regulations.

We don’t particularly like them, but a parenthetical plural can  be helpful when it doesn’t disrupt the rest of the sentence.

The “(s)” leads to trouble, for instance, if it’s tacked onto a noun that’s the subject of a verb or that has a singular article (“a” or “an”).

The Chicago Manual of Style once answered a question similar to yours on its online blog. Here’s the reply:

“A term ending in ‘(s)’ is both plural and singular. If you must use such a device (and it can be a useful shorthand), you have to be prepared to adjust the surrounding context as necessary: for example, ‘the award(s) is (are) accounted for.’ A parenthetical plural verb must correspond to the parenthetical ending.”

The conclusion: “In general, avoid such shorthand unless it can be used simply and effectively, as in the following example: “Place an ‘about the author(s)’ statement on the copyright page (usually page iv).”

One more comment. Parenthetical plurals are particularly awkward when used in a series, or added to nouns ending in “y.”

Here’s an extreme example: “The sculptor(s) has (have) to know the type(s) of marble used, the place(s) of origin, and the stress(es) it (they) can withstand.” In such a sentence, it’s simpler and more elegant to use the generic singular throughout.

As for using a parenthetical plural with an irregular plural—like “woman(en)” or “child(ren)”—forget it.

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Phrase origin Usage

Comprised, revised

Q: What’s all the upset over “comprised of”? I understand that a software engineer has purged Wikipedia 47,000 times regarding this usage. What is the problem?

A: In our opinion, the Wikipedian is fighting a losing battle. Increasingly, people are coming to feel as you do about this usage:  “What’s all the upset?”

The traditional view is that “comprise” means “include” or “contain” or “consist of,” so the whole always “comprises” the parts (as in “The Union comprises 50 states”).

“Comprise,” according to this view, shouldn’t be used the other way around. That is, it shouldn’t mean “make up,” “compose,” or “constitute,” as in “Fifty states comprise the Union” (the active use) or “The Union is comprised of 50 states” (the passive).

But the insistence on this traditional view is getting weaker as the years go by. Common usage is forcing lexicographers and usage writers (like us) to review the matter.

When we last wrote about “comprised of,” in 2010, we noted all the usual arguments against it, but added that “comprised of” was a very common usage and that we wouldn’t be surprised if it became widely accepted as standard English by lexicographers.

Today, nearly all dictionary publishers recognize the two nontraditional uses of “comprise” as standard English: (1) “to comprise,” meaning to make up or constitute, and (2) “to be comprised of,” meaning to be made up of.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and the larger Merriam Webster’s Unabridged have long treated both as standard.

The Unabridged notes that #1 “dates to the late 18th century and is less likely to attract criticism.” But #2, the note says, is a “newer passive construction” that dates to the late 19th century, and this is the one “that is commonly cited as an error.”

Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.) accepts both too. It cautions, however, that “comprised of” (as in “a nation comprised of thirteen states”) is “still regarded by a few to be a loose usage.”

The Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary also treats both usages as standard. It notes: “These later uses are often criticized, but they occur with increasing frequency even in formal speech and edited writing.”

British dictionary publishers agree, including Longman, Macmillan, Cambridge, Collins and Oxford Dictionaries online, in their British as well as American editions. We’ll quote just a few of their examples:

“Women comprise a high proportion of part-time workers” and “The committee is comprised of well-known mountaineers” (Longman).

“People aged 65 and over now comprise nearly 20% of the population” and “The course is comprised of two essays plus three assignments” (Macmillan).

But the verdict isn’t unanimous—or not yet, at least. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) still labels the use of “comprise” to mean “compose,” “make up,” or “constitute” a “usage problem.”

“The traditional rule states that the whole comprises the parts and the parts compose the whole,” American Heritage says in a usage note. “Even though many writers maintain this distinction, comprise is often used in place of compose, especially in the passive: The Union is comprised of 50 states. Our surveys show that opposition to this usage has abated but has not disappeared.”

When surveyed in 2011, American Heritage says, 32 percent of the dictionary’s Usage Panel still found the construction unacceptable.

We agree with you that the resistance to this use of “comprise” is difficult to understand. Apart from its widespread use by respected writers, there’s the historical evidence to consider.

The Oxford English Dictionary has many citations, dating from 1794, for the active verb meaning “to constitute, make up, compose.” And it has examples of the passive use, “to be comprised of,” dating from 1874.

It’s time to admit that the meaning of “comprise” has changed. Pat’s grammar guide Woe Is I includes the traditional view, but she has added the new usage to the notes she’s collecting for a new fourth edition.

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English English language Grammar Linguistics Usage Word origin

Editing the Editors

An “Open Book” interview with Patricia T. O’Conner in the New York Times Book Review


In an email interview, O’Conner said her favorite book on writing is “The Reader Over Your Shoulder,” by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge. “There’s no hand-holding, no coddling, no nonsense about ‘finding a voice,’ ” O’Conner said. It was first published in 1943, and O’Conner cautions readers to find early copies, since “some of the best parts are lost” in revised editions.

For the last word on grammar, she recommends “The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language,” by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum. “It’s an awesome feat of scholarship, and it’s not for sissies — this book is dense, to say the least,” she said. “But it has all of the answers and none of the superstitions.”

Asked for a favorite obscure title on the subject, O’Conner cited “a little green book called ‘Gobbledygook Has Gotta Go,’ published in 1966 by the U.S. Government Printing Office,” given to her by a friend. “The author was John O’Hayre, an employee of the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, and I hope he got a medal.”

Like Norris, O’Conner knows the hazards of writing about writing. (Norris started a recent Q. and A. on Reddit with a disclaimer: “Forgive the typos, it’s my day off.”) O’Conner said: “There are always people who will pounce and say, ‘Gotcha! You just broke your own rule!’ But my real feeling is that the world needs fewer writers and more readers.”

From the April 19, 2015, print edition of the New York Times Book Review.

English English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage Word origin

Consider the Comma

A review of Mary Norris’s Between You & Me, from the New York Times Book Review

For the uninitiated, The New Yorker is a magazine that until 2003 spelled the word “deluxe” with a hyphen: “de-luxe.” It inserts periods into “I.B.M.,” though IBM itself dropped them long ago. It phonetically splits the word “England,” when it breaks at the end of a line, like this: “En-gland.” (One imagines a verb, “england,” meaning to provide with glands.)

A regular reader might be forgiven for wondering, “Are these people nuts?” In Mary Norris’s “Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen,” we have our answer: They most certainly are. And their obsessions, typographical and otherwise, make hilarious reading.

Norris, a pillar of the copy department for decades, is not crazy herself, or not entirely. For instance, she knows when to stay her hand and let the writer’s voice come through. She also admits occasionally doubting the sanity of The New Yorker’s storied grammar goddess, Eleanor Gould Packard: “I had the unsettling thought ‘What if Eleanor ever loses it?’ ” But what to do? “No one would enter the copy department and say to Eleanor, ‘Drop the pencil and step away from the desk.’ ”

“Between You & Me” is mostly a memoir, but it’s part usage guide, too. Norris shares her views on spelling, punctuation, dangling participles and troublesome pronouns, providing apt illustrations from an editing life. V. S. Pritchett, we learn, was “a terrible speller,” but “when Pauline Kael typed ‘prevert’ instead of ‘pervert,’ she meant ‘prevert.’ ” James Salter adds control to a word “by smacking it with a comma as one would put English on a cue ball.” And by judiciously placing a colon, “Kelefa Sanneh, writing about Scotch, can sound like Henry James.”

But the grammar advice is less illuminating. Norris defends a friend of hers who actually said, while looking for her sunglasses, “Are those they?” Mary, drop the pencil and step away from the desk. Yes, one may use “It is I” if one wishes, but “It is me” is faultless English. The old prescription requiring the nominative case after the verb “to be” has long been discredited as a Latin construction mistakenly applied to English.

Despite the extreme grammar, this book charmed my socks off. Norris tracks down the person responsible for the hyphen in the title of “Moby-Dick” (it wasn’t Melville). There’s a chapter about dirty words, suitably salty. And Norris is passionate on the subject of pencils, describing them as seductively as others write about wine. Her current love is the “delicious” Blackwing, with its soft lead and flat eraser. On a pilgrimage to a pencil sharpener museum in Ohio (yes), only a sign warning that patrons were under surveillance, she writes, “kept me from dancing.”

Norris is a master storyteller and serves up plenty of inside stuff. When Mark Singer wrote an article about the cost of going to the movies and buying refreshments, the editors cut his reference to Junior Mints. As one editor intoned, “A New Yorker writer should not be eating Junior Mints.” Norris tells of the night she mopped up after Lillian Ross’s poodle, Goldie. She was even propositioned by Philip Roth! Well, sort of. She made a good catch in one of his pieces, and he replied: “Who is this woman? And will she come live with me?” She’s been smitten ever since: “If he should ever read this I just want to say I’m still available.”

(Patricia T. O’Conner’s books on language include “Woe Is I” and, most recently, “Origins of the Specious,” written with Stewart Kellerman. They blog about language at

From the April 19, 2015, print edition of the New York Times Book Review.

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

“Fast” times

Q: I may be missing a whole category of similar words, but “fast” is the only verb I can think of that requires NOT doing something in order to be doing it. Do you know of any others? Also, it’s odd that something moving quickly is “fast” while something fixed in place is “fast” too–utterly different etymology, no doubt.

A: Strange as it may seem, those three widely different meanings of “fast” are derived from the same ultimate source, firmuz, a reconstructed ancient Germanic root that meant “firm,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

“That underlying sense persists in various contexts, such as ‘hold fast’ and ‘fast friend,’ ” Ayto writes.

He says the sense of eating no food “originated in the notion of ‘holding fast to a particular observance’—specifically abstinence from food.”

Ayto adds that the use of “fast” to mean quick probably comes from “an underlying connotation of ‘extremity’ or ‘severity’ ” in the early “firm” sense of “fast.”

When “fast” first showed up in Old English, it was both an adverb meaning firmly or securely and an adjective meaning “firmly fixed in its place; not easily moved or shaken; settled, stable,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest examples in the OED are from King Alfred’s translation (circa 888) of a work by Boethius, De Consolatione Philosophiae (Consolation of Philosophy). We’ll quote the citations and translate the Old English.

adverb: “Swiþe fæste to somne gelimed” (“Exceedingly fast and joined together”).

adjective: “Se þe wille fæst hus timbrian ne sceall he hit no settan upon þone hehstan cnol” (“He who wants his house to be fast must not build it on the highest hill”).

The verb “fast,” meaning “to abstain from food, or to restrict oneself to a meagre diet, either as a religious observance or as a ceremonial expression of grief,” showed up less than a century later, according to Oxford.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the verb is from The Blickling Homilies (971), a collection of Anglo-Saxon religious commentaries: “Þæt ure Drihten æfter þæm fulwihte fæstte” (“After our Lord was baptized, he fasted”).

Some two centuries later, “fast” showed up in its speedy sense as an adverb meaning “quickly, rapidly, swiftly,” according to the OED.

In the dictionary’s earliest citation, from Layamon’s Brut, a Middle English poem written sometime before 1200, “fast” is spelled “veste”:

“He warnede alle his cnihtes … & fusden an veste” (“He warned all his knights … and set sail fast”).

In the early 14th century, “fast” appeared as an adjective meaning quick or swift. The first Oxford citation is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem written sometime before 1325:

“Sampson … gaue a-braid sa fers and fast, þat all þe bandes of him brast” (“Samson made a sudden movement, fierce and fast, so that all his bindings burst”).

The Middle English phrase “fers and fast” might have been translated as “fast and furious,” an expression that had lost its Samsonian fierceness when it showed up in Modern English in the 18th century.

The OED’s first citation for the phrase, which is defined as “eager, uproarious, noisy,” is from “Tam o’ Shanter,” a 1790 poem by Robert Burns: “The mirth and fun grew fast and furious.”

Getting back to your question, you’re right that the verb “fast,” meaning to refrain from eating, is an odd bird.

Offhand, we can think of at least one other verb that requires, as you put it, not doing something in order to be doing it: “abstain,” in the sense of refraining from drinking alcohol.

Of course “abstain” can also be used in a more general sense, as well as “avoid,” “cease,” “forgo,” “quit,” “renounce,” “spurn,” “stop,” and similar words. Some linguists refer to such terms as “avoidance words” or “words of rejection.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Inside “outside”

Q: My current grammar bête noir is the American insistence on “of” after “outside.” I realize you are on the other side of the pond, but please be neutral. Which is more elegant—“outside the hotel” or “outside of the hotel”? Surely not two prepositions in tandem?

A: OK, we think “outside the hotel” is more elegant, but we don’t think “outside of” is wrong here, and neither, apparently, do most Americans.

Generally a phrase that looks like two prepositions is actually an adverb accompanied by a preposition, as in “flew out of the nest” … “knelt down on the floor” … “doubled over in pain” … “it’s over with now.” The first underlined word in each example is an adverb.

This is also the case with “outside of,” a phrase that the Oxford English Dictionary describes as a compound preposition consisting of the adverb “outside” plus the preposition “of.”

Like “inside,” the word “outside” has several grammatical functions. It can be (1) a preposition, as in “the grass outside the fence”; (2) a noun, as in “the outside of the house is better than the inside”; (3) an adjective, as in “the outside world”; or (4) an adverb, as in “let’s step outside.”

The two standard American dictionaries we consult the most—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.)—both categorize the compound “outside of” as a preposition meaning either (1) “outside” in the spatial sense, or (2) “aside from.”

More to the point, both American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s list the phrase without reservation (that is, without usage labels like “slang” or “informal”) when used in either sense.

However, some American usage guides object to using “outside of” in one or more of those senses.

Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.), for example, frowns on using it for either sense, while Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says both uses are OK.

“Outside of,” as Merriam-Webster’s notes, “was in common use by standard 19th-century authors such as Emerson, Thackeray, Hawthorne, and Henry James.”

Matters are different in the UK, where Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) says “outside” alone “is overwhelmingly the normal use” for both senses.

However, the Oxford English Dictionary and Oxford Dictionaries online (a different  entity) have contradictory views about the phrase.

The OED says the use of “outside of” to mean “apart from” or “with the exception of” is “colloquial”—more proper to ordinary conversation than to formal English.

But the dictionary recognizes “outside of” as entirely normal when used in the spatial sense, defined as “beyond the walls, limits, or bounds of; to or on the outside of; external to.”

The British version of Oxford Dictionaries, on the other hand, sees the use of “outside of” in the spatial sense as “chiefly North American,” while its use in the “apart from” sense is listed without reservation.

The OED’s earliest example of the “apart from” sense is from J. Jacob Oswandel’s Notes of the Mexican War (1847):

“Those who have any money left can get something outside of government rations to eat, but those who have none have to take what comes, good or not good.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the spatial sense is from 1784, when the phrase appeared in a stage direction—“Outside of Dermot’s House”—in Poor Soldier, a comic opera written by the Irish playwright John O’Keeffe.

What do we think of all this? We agree with the editors of the Merriam-Webster’s usage guide:

“Our evidence suggests that writers and speakers retain the of when it seems right to them, and drop it when it does not. You have the same choice.”

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An existential question

Q: What exactly does “existential” mean when used to modify such nouns as “threat” and  “crisis”?

A: On a literal level, the adjective “existential” means “of or pertaining to existence,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

So, for example, an “existential threat” would be a threat to existence—that is, to life. An “existential crisis” would be one in which existence itself is held in the balance.

On a personal level, someone facing an “existential crisis” might feel that existence has no purpose, that life is meaningless and perhaps not worth living.

You might say that Hamlet had an existential crisis when he cried, “To be, or not to be, that is the question.”

But “existential” often isn’t used literally, especially in news reports.

For instance, the term “existential struggle” has been used to describe what’s happening in urban design, art, jazz, shipping, and parenting. And Miley Cyrus reportedly had an “existential crisis” at seeing a photo of her teen-age self as Hannah Montana.

We often hear terrorism called an “existential threat,” one that has the country in an “existential struggle.” And recently an executive for a security firm told CNBC that cyber-hacking was “an existential threat to our society.”

It’s hard to see how some of these uses deserve the label “existential.” But many people now see the term as a handy adjective for conveying a sense of urgency or adding dramatic emphasis, usages that aren’t yet recognized by standard dictionaries.

Oxford Dictionaries online says “existential” has these meanings: (1) of or relating to existence, (2) concerning existence as seen through the philosophy of existentialism (more on this later), (3) of a proposition in logic that affirms or implies existence (ditto).

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) adds a couple of other meanings: (4) based on experience and (5) relating to a linguistic construction that indicates existence, such as “there’s” in “Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”

The word “existential” came into English by way of two medieval Latin terms, the adjective existentialis and the noun existentia (“existence”).

It was first recorded in writing, according to the OED, in Genuine Remains (1693), the posthumously published papers of Dr. Thomas Barlow, Lord Bishop of Lincoln.

In an essay written when he was a Master’s candidate at Oxford (this would have been in 1632 or ’33), Barlow discussed the question, “Whether it is better not to be, than to be Miserable.” (Perhaps he’d seen Hamlet on the stage.)

In one passage, he contrasts the two states: “the enjoying the good of existence, though accompanied with misery,” versus “annihilation: and consequently the being deprived of that existential good.” (We’ve expanded on the OED citation.)

Barlow wrote his exercise in Latin, so “existential” didn’t appear in English until his works were translated in 1693.

“Existential” had that bare meaning—having to do with existence—for quite a while.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, according to OED citations, used it the same way in a weekly paper he edited, the Friend (1809 or ’10): “The essential cause of fiendish guilt, when it makes itself existential and peripheric.”

But later Coleridge used the term in a new way in the field of logic, according to the OED. He used “existential” to describe a proposition that expresses the fact of existence.

Here’s the earliest known use of this sense of the word, from a lecture Coleridge wrote in 1819:

“This necessarily led men … to doubt whether a logical truth was necessarily an existencial one, i.e. whether because a thing was logically consistent it must be necessarily existent.”

The word also has a specific meaning in philosophy, where it has a doctrine all to itself—existentialism.

As the OED explains, existentialism “concentrates on the existence of the individual, who, being free and responsible, is held to be what he makes himself by the self-development of his essence through acts of the will.”

The existential or existentialist movement began principally with the Danish writer Søren Kierkegaard in the 1840s.

But, as the OED says, “it was developed in the 20th c. chiefly in continental Europe by Jaspers, Sartre, and others, and the English word existentialism answers to German existentialismus, which is first recorded in 1919.”

It would be interesting to hear what Kierkegaard or Sartre would say about the “existential struggle” to be a good parent.

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Iffen ya brung a gun

Q: A Vivian Maier image from Chicago in the 1950s shows a sign with this message: ’IFEN YA’ BRUNG A GUN / LEAVE IT OUTSIDE THE DOOR / ’CAUSE SHOOTIN’ OUR FRIENDS / JUST MAKES US SORE! Can you explain ’IFEN? It looks like a contraction but I can’t think what’s missing.

A: The Dictionary of American Regional English speculates that the “iffen” spelling represents the pronunciation of “if and.”

DARE says this regional conjunction, heard chiefly in the South and South Midland, has also been spelled “effen,” “ef’n,” “if-and,” “if’n,” “ifnd,” and “ifnt.” It says “iffen” is similar in meaning to “if” or “if so be.”

The earliest example of the usage in the regional dictionary is from a 1909 issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly in Durham, NC: “Ef’n yo’ don’ lak de tas’e er yo’ bittle [=victuals], dash um ’way an’ be done!”

(DARE describes the language in this citation as Gullah, a Creole heard among African Americans living on the Sea Islands and along the Southeastern coast.)

However, the Oxford English Dictionary has a much earlier example of the usage from Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel Tom Jones: “If an she be a Rebel.”

(The OED cites the quotation in discussing the substitution of “an” for the conjunction “and,” which it describes as a Scottish or Northern English regionalism.)

Here’s another DARE example of the usage, from Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s novel The Yearling (1938): “Iffen you’ll learn yourself to work, you’ll be your Pa all over.”

The regional dictionary’s most recent example of the usage, from Bobbie Ann Mason’s novel Feather Crowns (1993), supports the idea that the “iffen” spelling simply represents the pronunciation of “if and”:

“Well, I thought it might be, and I thought I’d tell you if-and you didn’t know.”

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That’s not us—it’s nature!

Q: My dictionary says nature is the entire physical universe. But for most of us, nature is what’s out there and not human. My question (which I don’t expect answered) is thus: When did we humans look around and say, “That’s not us—it’s nature”?

A: You’re right. We can’t tell you when the first human beings said, in whatever prehistoric language they were speaking, “That’s not us—it’s nature.”

But we can tell you when English speakers began referring to the physical world, as opposed to humans and their creations, as “nature.” It was around 600 years ago. Here’s the story.

English borrowed the noun “nature” in the 13th century from the Anglo-Norman and Old French word nature, but its ultimate source is Latin, where natura meant birth, constitution, character, the physical world, and many other things.

The Oxford English Dictionary notes that natura and nature had many earthy meanings in Latin and Anglo-Norman.

In classical Latin, for example, natura could mean the genitals, while in medieval Latin, it could mean the need to urinate or defecate; in Anglo-Norman, nature could mean semen or menstrual discharge.

Those bodily senses carried over into English, where “nature” at one time or another meant excrement, semen, menstrual discharge, the female genitals, sexual desire, and female sexual secretions.

Those senses are now obsolete or rare, but one earthy meaning is still with us: the need to urinate or defecate, as in “the call of nature.”

When “nature” first showed up in English, according to the OED, it referred to the “vital or physical powers of a person; a person’s physical strength or constitution.”

The earliest example in the dictionary is from a Kentish sermon, written around 1275: Þe nature of Man is of greater strengþe and of greater hete ine þo age” (“The nature of Man is of greater strength and greater promise in early age”).

A little over a century later, “nature” came to mean the “inherent dominating power or impulse in a person by which character or action is determined, directed, or controlled,” according to the OED.

The earliest Oxford citation for this sense is from “The Tale of Melibeus” in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (circa 1390): “Nature defendeth and forbedeth by right that no man make hym self riche vn to the harm of another persone.”

Around the same time, “nature” took on the sense of the “innate or characteristic disposition of a particular person, animal, etc.,” the OED says.

In Confessio Amantis, a poem written by John Gower sometime before 1393, Morpheus is described as someone “whos nature Is forto take the figure Of what persone that him liketh.”

Rather than describe all the many meanings of “nature,” we’ll skip ahead to the sense you’ve asked about, which the OED defines as the “phenomena of the physical world collectively; esp. plants, animals, and other features and products of the earth itself, as opposed to humans and human creations.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Cleanness, an anonymous  Middle English poem, written around 1400, about married life. The citation here refers to the infant Jesus:

“Þe ox & þe asse … knewe hym by his clannes for Kyng of nature” (“The ox and the ass knew him by his purity for the King of nature”).

We’ll end with a 20th-century example from The Age of Gods, a 1928 study by the British historian Christopher Dawson about prehistoric culture:

“Man was entirely at the mercy of nature—a mere scavenger who eked out a miserable existence as a food-gatherer and an eater of shell-fish.”

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A “thank-you,” and an appeal

We’d like to extend our thanks to those of you who contributed to the Grammarphobia Blog when we asked for help a few months ago, as well as to our long-time contributors.

One of our readers responded, “I really enjoy the blog, but I never thought about the business model (or lack thereof).”

Well, if we have a “business model,” this is it. The blog is free. We don’t have a paywall, we don’t charge for subscriptions, and we don’t accept ads.

Of course this means we don’t have any income, either! The two of us spend several hours a day researching and writing all our own content. We also answer many reader questions that don’t make it onto the blog.

We pay all our own expenses: Web hosting, tech support, maintenance, and so on. And we try to keep our standard dictionaries and other reference books up to date, besides covering our annual subscriptions to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Dictionary of American Regional English, and other online resources.

This is why your donations are important. Every reader who clicks the “Donate” button helps keep us blogging, and every donation makes a difference, no matter how small.

So bless all of you who have contributed in the past. And for those who haven’t, please consider supporting the Grammarphobia Blog with a donation.  But whether you contribute or not, thank you for reading and for continuing to send us your questions.

And now, back to work!

Pat and Stewart

English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Several senses

Q: I recently came across a NY Times article that referred to charges that a man had created fake accounts for his ex-girlfriend “on a several online dating websites.” Why is there an “a” in front of “several”?

A: This appears to be an editing error, though the adjective “several” was sometimes preceded by the indefinite article “a” from the 16th to 19th centuries.

Our guess is that the reporter wrote “a number of” or perhaps “a few,” but a copy editor preferred “several.” In making the change, the article “a” was accidentally left in place.

In case other readers of the blog are interested, the Times article was about “revenge porn,” online harassment that involves the posting of sexually explicit material.

In contemporary English, “several” is usually an adjective (“several books”) or a pronoun (“several of them”) that refers to an indefinite small number greater than two or three.

(Some British dictionaries refer to “several” as a “determiner” when used to modify a noun or noun phrase, but the Oxford English Dictionary and standard American dictionaries use the broader and more common term “adjective,” as we do.)

In addition to its primary sense today, the adjective “several” can also mean different or various (“They split up and went their several ways”) or legally separate (“joint versus several liability”).

The adjective “several” meant separate or apart when English got it from Anglo-Norman in the 1400s, according to the OED. The word is ultimately derived from the Latin verb separare (to separate).

In The Pylgrymage of Sir Richard Guylforde to the Holy Land (1511), for example, a reference to “seuerall Cloysters, and seuerall [l]odgynges” means “separate cloisters and separate lodgings.”

The OED has quite a few examples of “several” used in this sense with an indefinite article, including a citation from Speculum Mundi, a 1635 study of nature by John Swan: “Every scale of an onyon is a severall and differing scale.”

And here’s a citation from Milton’s The History of Britain (1690): But so different a state of things requires a several relation.”

The legal sense of separate, as opposed to joint, showed up in the 1500s, according to Oxford. Here’s a citation from The Interpreter, a 1607 legal dictionary by John Cowell: “Severall taile (tallium separatum) is that whereby land is given and entayled seuerally.”

The use of “several” to mean various or different also showed up in the 1500s, according to Oxford. This example is from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (1600): “Draw aside the curtaines and discouer the seuerall caskets to this noble Prince.”

In the 1600s, the adjective took on what Oxford describes as its “chief current sense,”  referring to “an indefinite (but not large) number exceeding two or three,” or “more than two or three but not very many.”

Here’s an example from Milton’s Paradise Regained (1671): “Ninevee, of length within her wall / Several days journey.”

The pronoun use of “several” to mean an indefinite but small number also showed up in the 1600s.

The OED has several examples, including this one from Joseph Addison’s Remarks on Several Parts of Italy (1705:

“There are still several of these Topicks that are far from being exhausted.”

We could go on, but we’ve exhausted ourselves, if not our topic. If you’d like to read more, we wrote posts in 2010 and 2007 on the use of “few,” “couple,” and “several” for small, indefinite amounts.

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