Several words with quite a few nuances

Artfully indefinite quantifiers can push or pull meaning one way or another.

"He'll be with you in just a few minutes."

"You'd better make up your mind about this apartment, lady; several people have already called about it."

"Many observers think his candidacy is doomed."

These sentences are examples of what we might call artfully indefinite quantifiers. I've been noodling lately over the role these play in our language. Can real numbers ever be attached to such expressions? Does the dentist who's running late really believe he'll be free in five minutes – or 45? How many people have actually called about that apartment? Three? Is one of them the agent's mother, calling to ask, "Did you ever rent that basement studio you were complaining about?"

What got my wheels turning on this was a question the other day about where to place the number four on this scale of few/several/many. The context was an editorial project in which I needed to make passing reference to someone's having had "about four" unexpected opportunities, while traveling, to perform in his chosen field. I would ordinarily have called four "a few" opportunities. But we (here I'll take refuge in the editorial "we") wanted to make four sound like "a lot" if we honestly could.

"Several," though, sounded like more than four. So did "many." We could say "some," but that sounded too vague. We ended up referring to "a number of opportunities" on the ground that four was, after all, a number. Moreover, since the opportunities were unexpected, it wasn't a case of "merely" four, but "all of four."

We tried to approach this one with integrity, but artfully indefinite quantifiers do tend to be used to push or pull a statement in one direction or another.

Journalists trying to represent the results of their research in punchy, forceful terms while trying not to suggest more than their actual research justifies sometimes take refuge in locutions like the "many observers" quoted above.

But what of these artful little words themselves? Are there any clues to their background that help us understand how to deal with them?

The Online Etymology Dictionary traces few back to a proto-Indo-European root, pau, which meant "smallness." If you've ever struggled as an American in Paris to explain to a waiter, "Je ne parle qu'un peu de français," you've met few's French cousin.

The US Marines advertise themselves as "The Few. The Proud." Another famous "few" were the English forces at the Battle of Agincourt: "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers," in the St. Crispin's Day speech from Shakespeare's "Henry V."

Several is related to separate and sever, and was originally used to indicate the distinctness of one element from another. Thus to speak of "several possibilities," was to emphasize how different each was from another rather than how many there were.

The definition that the OED gives of several – ("as a vague numeral") reads in part: "Of an indefinite (but not large) number exceeding two or three; more than two or three but not very many."

In older references, it's not always clear to us moderns whether it's the separability or the more-than-two-ness that is being emphasized. Consider Article One, Section Two of the United States Constitution: "The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States...."

As an indefinite quantifier, few can cut both ways. Unadorned, it stresses limitation: "He found few opportunities for work in the city." This sentence becomes more hopeful with the addition of an indefinite article: "a few opportunities."

Make that "quite a few" and you've backed into an indirect way of saying "many." And many is "the adjectival designation of great indefinite number," as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it rather grandly. Yes, but how many is it really? There is no end to this!

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