The Grammarphobia Blog

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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