Thursday, October 4, 2012

Several Definitions of “Several”


Ask someone how many “several” is, and you’ll get different responses depending on the person you ask and, quite likely, the region where he or she was raised.

When I was growing up, I was taught that “several” equals a vague estimated amount in the vicinity of three to five. It is more than one, because, well, one is just one. It’s more than two, because two can also be “a pair” or “a couple” of something.

One day, a friend from the Boston area declared to me that “several” equated to “seven,” which made no sense to me at all. If the word was that specific, why say “several” instead of simply saying “seven?”

My husband, who has spent most of his life in Colorado and the Southwest, thinks “several” means a quantity more than two, but probably fewer than ten.

On a recent episode of “Warehouse 13,” the character of Mrs. Fredric said a weapon might have to be used “several more times” in reference to the number of remaining bad guys. I counted six bad guys in the scene.

We recently received this notice at my place of employment:
“Over the past week, you will notice several benches in the classroom hallways. Approximately 125 benches were delivered...”
Never mind the present tense verb “will” in reference to events of the past week. Is the writer equating “several” to 125, or is he/she saying that “several” of the 125 new benches have been installed?

So what, exactly, constitutes “several” of something?

The dictionary on my computer says “more than two but not many,” defining “many” as “a large number” of something. Well, that was certainly helpful, wasn’t it?

The Free Dictionary defines it as “Being of a number more than two or three but not many.” (Another brain bender: Isn’t three more than two, and if so, shouldn’t that definition say “three or more?”)

Merriam-Webster online has not one, but three definitions (or should I say “several” definitions?):

a. more than one (which is rather obvious)
b. more than two but fewer than many (here we go again…)
c. chiefly dialect: being a great many (more than “a large number?”)

I suppose the lesson here is that if accuracy in numbers is important, use a specific count to avoid confusion. Otherwise, when you tell your co-worker to pick up several dozen cookies for a meeting, you could get anywhere from twelve to a hundred and twelve.

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