Some [Numeral].

Anatoly Vorobey (Avva) wrote me as follows:

Stephen, what do you think of “some [numeral]” construction?

In this article we find two instances of it:

“Some 6.26 million Israelis have received at least one dose of the vaccine, 5.76 million at least two and 4.05 million have had the booster shot.”

“Some 682 corona cases were registered on Monday, the highest number since the end of last month, as the Health Ministry reported on Tuesday, 463 of whom were schoolchildren.”

What exactly is different, to you, about these sentences compared to bare numerals, i.e. “6.26 million Israelis have received…” and “682 corona cases were registered…”?

I suddenly realized I’m not exactly sure what’s the semantic nuance here, and how to render it e.g. in Russian. What’s more, on checking dictionaries it seems that they don’t carry this meaning at all! (I checked M-W, the OED, and American Heritage). All dictionaries have “some” to mean “approximately”, but that’s precisely not what’s happening here. “682 cases” is not approximate, it’s in-your-face exact.

You can find many examples by googling “some [number]”; I tried 234 on a lark and found e.g. this in Scientific American: “He first observed it in 1612 and thought it was a fixed star, some 234 years before it was discovered to be a planet.”

I have conflicting intuitions:

1. Maybe it means something like “as many as”, emphasizing that a relatively or unexpectedly large number is about to be mentioned. Russian translations might be “целых”, “аж”.
2. Maybe it means something like “a total of”, emphasizing the idea of a completed count of something. Russian “всего” (which itself has two different meanings, as I just realized, cf
“Всего мы отправили 10 посылок” and “мы отправили всего 10 посылок”, the former sums
up the number with no emotion attached, the latter expresses regret that it wasn’t more)
3. Maybe it means something like “exactly”, emphasizing that the reader should trust this to be the exact number advertised. Russian “в точности”.

Thinking it over, I’m inclined to go with 1, because 2 and 3 work with small numbers, but “some” doesn’t seem to:

A total of 3 cases were found.
Exactly 3 cases were found,
*Some 3 cases were found. (or maybe it’s possible?)

But I’m not sure. What do you think?

I responded as follows:

Definitely not 3. I think it’s just sloppy writing, trying to reconcile the conflicting desires to give an exact number but not be held to it; you toss in a “some” so you can say “See, I was being vague, not exact, so don’t give me a hard time.” That’s my best guess, anyway.

But that’s not a very satisfactory response, and I thought I’d post it here and let the General Reader have at it. For reference, here’s the relevant OED sense (with most citations snipped; the entry has not been fully updated since 1913):

9. a. Used with numbers to indicate an approximate amount or estimate, and passing into an adverb with the sense ‘about, nearly, approximately’. Also U.S., following a numeral.

c888 Ælfred tr. Boethius De Consol. Philos. xxxviii. §1 Þa wæron hi sume ten gear on þam gewinne.
1567 J. Maplet Greene Forest f. 84v The floud Ganges hath Eles some 30 Foote long.
1671 J. Dryden Evening’s Love ii. 18 I have some 300 Pistols by me.
1786 R. Burns Poems & Songs (1968) I. 165 It’s now some nine-an’-twenty year.
1836 J. W. Carlyle Lett. I. 56 We expect John Carlyle in some ten days.
1980 in S. Terkel Amer. Dreams 2 There were sixty-some contestants from all over the place.


  1. I want to know more about those eels.

  2. Yes, that’s an alarming image.

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    I agree that the “approximately” sense doesn’t cohabit very easily with a precise-sounding number, but it’s definitely Out There. I decided to go up just a little bit from AV’s “some 234” experiment, and came up with “Some 239 jobs in the Vauxhall plant in Luton South are at risk this week due to the semiconductor chip shortage and furlough ending this month.” And also “Some 239 antiviral molecules against COVID-19 are under development.” On the other hand, I found a university press release using the phrase “Some 239 Graduates” in the headline but saying in its body “Approximately 239 degrees are to be conferred,” which seems just as peculiar. Unless the idea is to hedge and basically say “they’ve told us they expect the exact number to be 239 but maybe after the dust settles it will turn out they were off by a bit because they forgot to count a few people and/or a few others didn’t turn in that last assignment on time.” Could it be a hedge where the writer is implying “I got this exact-sounding number from a source and can’t independently vouch for it, so if it ends up being a bit off the false precision is the source’s fault and not mine”?

    EDITED TO ADD: Maybe it’s noteworthy that the middle example I gave (re anti-COVID molecules under development) is a bit different than the others, because it’s plausible that no single person in the world that the writer could have consulted would have, at a given instant, full and complete information about the number of such development efforts underway worldwide even though in the abstract there might at any given instant be a true number. But by contrast some specific non-omniscient person at a given university could well have access to the exact list of names of “people we’re giving degrees to next week” or “employees whose jobs we are already preparing to eliminate if X occurs,” so the uncertainties there are more to do with the possibility of classification errors made in including/excluding names on/from the list and/or simple arithmetic mistakes in counting up the total number of names on the list.

  4. “Some 682 corona cases were registered on Monday, …”

    It would be quite natural to tack on “and counting”. So “some” is showing the number is approximate, and almost certainly an under-estimate, and (as Hat puts it) it’s difficult to keep count, don’t give me a hard time.

    So Anatoly’s meaning 2 isn’t it — there’s no sense of a “completed count”, just the opposite.

    When reporting officially-published figures, the commenter’s “some n” indicates a suspicion the officials are under-stating. See examples of “some n” here.

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    I wonder if this is more a feature found at the beginning of written sentences, rather than elsewhere?

    Starting a sentence with a written numeral can be a bit discombobulating for the reader; maybe this is a way of avoiding that, favoured by those with little sensitivity to nuances of language as such.

  6. David Marjanović says

    c888 Ælfred tr. Boethius De Consol. Philos. xxxviii. §1 Þa wæron hi sume ten gear on þam gewinne.

    And then they got tired of winning…?

  7. Some n thoughts:

    (1) I wonder if there’s conflation with “sum”?

    (2) Many style guides prohibit starting a sentence with a numeral. “Some 682 corona cases…” is a quicker fix than “Six hundred and eighty-two corona cases…” That doesn’t explain the Scientific American example, though.

    (3) To me this “some n” sounds a kind of affected Authoritative Voice, akin to pronouncing articles with full vowel /eɪ/, /ðiː/ when /ə/, /ðə/ would be more natural

  8. January First-of-May says

    There were sixty-some contestants from all over the place.

    That’s a different (sub-)sense, I think; the word some here is standing for some unspecified units digit. It could just as well be sixty-odd or maybe even sixty-something.

    (Wiktionary lists this sense under -some, etymology 5: “Plus some indeterminate fraction not amounting to the next higher round number or significant digit.”)

    1. Maybe it means something like “as many as”, emphasizing that a relatively or unexpectedly large number is about to be mentioned.

    This is essentially my impression (already from the listed examples, but especially given the SA example), though I would say that the nuance seems mild, nowhere near strong enough to be conveyed by Russian аж. In Avva’s first example I would translate with уже “already”.

  9. In the first sentence, I think “some 6.26 million Israelis” is perfectly fine. This is clearly the standard usage in which the author means that the number is approximate. Which is to say, it’s certainly not exactly 6,260,000 Israelis who have received the vaccine, but 6.26 million represents the rounded number.

    The second sentence is much harder to justify as the number of “registered cases” in a particular locale should be easier to quantify. As others have said, I suspect it’s just an attempt to hedge and imply that the stated number may or may not be final.

  10. Could it be a hedge where the writer is implying “I got this exact-sounding number from a source and can’t independently vouch for it, so if it ends up being a bit off the false precision is the source’s fault and not mine”?

    That was my guess.

    To me this “some n” sounds a kind of affected Authoritative Voice

    Now that you mention it, that probably plays a role as well.

    That’s a different (sub-)sense, I think

    I agree, and I expect when they get around to updating the entry they’ll separate it out.

  11. January First-of-May says

    It could just as well be sixty-odd

    This actually reminds me of an interesting example of both: the opening lines of The Ballad of Transport 18 by Leslie Fish…

    We were thirty-eight crewmen on Transport Eighteen,
    The hour was late and the talk was obscene,
    When the raiders streaked down and their bright lasers cut
    Some twenty-odd holes through her steel-plated gut.

    Or, at least, that’s how the lyrics are (apparently) usually given; but at some point I ran into a reading Some twenty-yard holes…, complete with a debate in the comments over which version was, in fact, correct. (Most of the commenters decided that the “yard” version was wrong.)

    EDIT: the next verse of the same song, incidentally, provides by far the newest example I know of (if perhaps, in this case, only for the sake of the rhyme) of told meaning “tallied” – a nice reminder that “tale” and “tally” is ultimately the same word.

  12. To me it’s unquestionably meaning 1 and doesn’t look odd to me at all. Maybe it’s because I’m so used to seeing the Italian construction “ben X”? But I don’t think so – and that “some nine-and-twenty year” gives me reason to hope that it’s not just a bad habit of sloppy writers who have confused large number approximation with large number surprise. The number does have to be on the large side, though: while I can imagine using “ben” with a small one if it were still more than you might expect (ho mangiato ben tre porzioni), I can’t imagine doing that with “some.” It would still have to be at least fifteen.

  13. J.W. Brewer says

    Sometimes it’s probably better if the journalist rounds off (with whatever hedging language) even when the source is being precise. Right now a U.S. federal government website claims that exactly 196,168,756 persons in the U.S. had been fully vaccinated against COVID as of 6 a.m. EST on November 24. The data collection can’t possibly be good enough for that exact number to be true. The only question is how much margin-of-error should be applied. Would 196.2 million still be misleadingly precise? 196 million?

  14. I agree with January First-of-May. It’s weak, but there is a connotation that the number is large. Maybe it’s large relative to expectations, or maybe it’s just large and oddly precise and the speaker is impressed with it and “some” is a bit of throat-clearing that gives them time to roll it around and savor its power in their mouth.

  15. J.W. Brewer says

    Here’s a not-particularly recent instance of the “some X years” construction, from a biographical sketch of Andre Chenier (1762-1794) by Katharine Hillard (1839ish – 1915): “Very little of André Chénier’s poetry was left in a state fit for publication; he began so many vast enterprises of which he left but the merest fragments, and he wrote so much that his literary executors feared would shock the public taste. His brother published ‘The Young Captive’ and one or two other poems some seven years after his death, which were quoted by Chateaubriand in 1802 and warmly admired by him.” Wikipedia says (and let’s assume arguendo that Hillard knew this with the same degree of precision) that Chenier was guillotined on July 25, 1794 and mentions a posthumous publication in the March 22, 1801 issue of the Mercure de France. Is the “some” intended to indicate that “seven years” is rounded off, because the gap was just under 80 months rather than a round 84? Or is it a sort of rhetorical flourish, given that usually no one takes statements like “I lived in San Diego for seven years before I moved back to Texas” to refer by default to a seven-years-exactly-to-the-day stretch of time unless they are appropriately hedged.

  16. To me, this usage of “some” is followed by an approximate number, but usually one that is higher than expected.

  17. Nothing unusual. “Some 682 cases” can be translated into Croatian as “nekih 682 slučajeva”.

    I’d assume it would also be the case with other Slav languages. But apparently not for Ruski.

  18. (partly echoing what others have said)
    to me, it rings old-fashioned and maybe a touch british, but more formal/bookish than authoritative.

    “as many as” catches one aspect of it for me: a sense of noteworthiness, but not necessarily because of a large or larger-than-expected number (e.g. “i saw some seven of the six thousand students doze off in chomsky’s lecture” would imply having expected to see a larger number).

    but i don’t think “approximately” is quite right. to my ear, it’s not that the number is uncertain or even definitely incomplete but that it’s not final or authoritative. i think it precedes a precise number – “some twenty-odd holes” needs the “-odd” to establish approximation – but one that could be changed by later information, or that is in some way open to debate or quibbling.

  19. I don’t know that it has a meaning. I’m inclined to agree with those who say that it’s a way of getting around starting a sentence with a number, but I’d widen that a bit. Within a sentence, it seems more like a filler word, for academic writing, or at least for the sake of pomposity (assuming there is a distinction).

  20. Dmitry Pruss says

    My inner statistician tells me that you may be conflating “rounded” and “inexact”. While some stylistic rules may tell you not use 682.00 when your error of measurement is too big to tell 680 from 700 with certainty, you might still conclude that 682 was the most likely answer, and then it’s in some ways better to say “approximately 682” then to defer to “about 700”.

    “Approximately 269 degrees” may be totally fine if not all departments provided numbers for calculating the total, and not all awardees RVSPd, so the actual number may have been slightly larger or slightly smaller but it was the best available guess.

    Of course when the number in question is the established official record, then “some” no longer makes any sense.

  21. LH: . I think it’s just sloppy writing, trying to reconcile the conflicting desires to give an exact number but not be held to it; you toss in a “some” so you can say “See, I was being vague, not exact, so don’t give me a hard time.”
    JWB: Unless the idea is to hedge

    Is it the same as colloquial “like”, “kinda” etc. just without the implication that you are, like, 16?

  22. when the number in question is the established official record, then “some” no longer makes any sense.

    “some” makes the entirely sensible sense (hah!) that the author/commenter doubts the accuracy of the official record — no matter how confidently the officials might repeat it.

    Particularly with Covid numbers — no matter how diligently officials try to establish records — there’s good reason for a commenter to suspect those are under-collected.

    “some” usually indicates the commenter is of the view that’s an under-estimate; whereas “approximately” or “about” doesn’t commit an opinion about the direction of the error.

    i saw some seven of the six thousand students … suggests the commenter is of the view there were probably more than seven; merely the commenter didn’t sight more.

  23. PlasticPaddy says

    Some 47 of the students might have been sleeping with their eyes open…

  24. It appears to be different in meaning from “something like”.

  25. Native speaker of British English here: a clear sense of ‘larger than expected’ – indeed, I’d use this construction myself. However my partner says she wouldn’t, says it sounds archaic, but does understand the same sense.

  26. I think rozele nailed it earlier on.

    The Jerusalem Post examples sound fine to me. I don’t think it’s necessarily pompous, just cloying in Victorian novels: ‘a lad of some seventeen summers’.

    Fairly sure I’ve never come across it in speech, even in Britain, only in writing. Isn’t it just saying, pay attention, this (number) matters (for whatever reason)? If you were speaking, you wouldn’t need it, your voice would do the underlining. Perhaps one of those words (like ‘schon’ in German?) where you might just want to translate the sentence and not the word directly.

  27. Count me with those who suspect the examples in the post result from adding “Some” to avoid starting a sentence with a number, which would otherwise have to be spelled out according to most style guides. “A total of” is sometimes used for the same purpose.

  28. What’s the smallest numeral you would use with “some”? I’d say “some seven” is about the smallest. “Some six” is really borderline. “Some two” is unacceptable.

  29. Some info I found about the supposed Ganges Giant Blue Eel, a fantastic creature described by many ancient writers:

    According to Gaius Iulius Solinus (a renowned Latin scholar and compiler who flourished during the 3rd Century AD), these amazing creatures were 30 ft long. However, their dimensions grew ever larger with repeated retellings by later writers, until they eventually acquired sufficient stature – up to 300 ft long now – to emerge from their muddy seclusion beneath the dark cloak of evening and prey upon oxen, camels, and even elephants!

  30. David Eddyshaw says

    Londoners ate them all.

  31. PlasticPaddy says

    Closer to home, you have explained also the disappearance of the Loch Ness monster. The truth can be found in an East End chipper.

  32. I recall reading a history of Alexander the Great’s conquests (although I no longer remember the author), in which the author mentioned the legends of twenty-foot (or longer) worms living in the Indus River (and waterways beyond), which sometimes even snatched large livestock from the banks. Alexander’s armies heard many stories about these beasts as the men marched across the Near East. As I read this part of the book, these worms just seemed like typical tall tales. However, the author pointed out that when the Greeks reached Pakistan, they did indeed encounter animals that essentially matched the descriptions: crocodiles! Of course, the Greeks had encountered large saltwater and freshwater crocodiles in Egypt already. However, in the lands they had to cross between Egypt and India, inland Mesopotamia and Persia, such massive creatures were largely unknown, and no one seemed to connect the tales they heard in the Persian Empire with the crocs they had already met to the west.

  33. David Marjanović says

    Krokodeilos is “pebble worm”, though that seems to be a folk etymology of several similar versions (thought to be a substrate word) used for lizards back home.

  34. @dravsi @Michael (& others?):

    i agree: i’m not sure i’ve heard “some [#]” out loud except when it’s what’s said is pre-written (i’m not even sure i’ve heard it produced by people who talk in a written register, with sentences & everything). so i kinda like the idea that it’s structurally parallel to the approximation-marking “like”, which hardly ever appears on paper. that “like”, in my experience, tends to prefer round numbers (for some definition of “round”: multiples of ten & twenty-five, dozens, & named large units, but also in some circles 17 and other idiosyncratic things).

  35. David Eddyshaw says

    Wʋʋ “like” is the standard way of expressing “about” with numbers and measures in Kusaal, e.g. wʋʋ maila atan’ nɛ pʋsʋk (“like mile three with half”) “about three and a half miles.”

  36. This locution honestly sounds like something I would use myself, but probably not in nonfiction. I think it sounds wrong in scientific or journalistic prose. Looking back over my fiction writing, I was surprised that I only found a few uses of some with a number:

    Her scheme to defeat the quicksilver monster required the cooperation of some two dozen or more accomplices.

    “My ward, a girl of some thirteen years, was taken from my home not far from here,” Lyka said. “Was she brought to these furnaces?”

    The God lived in the crater. It was the spirit of the mountain, the Memory had told Lyka, but it was a young deity—a newcomer—born in a fiery eruption some forty years before.

    The pathway travelled along a straight, undeviating line, which Lyka followed for some fifteen or twenty paces.

    In all of these instances except the one where it appears in direct dialogue, the some definitely serves to indicate that the number is approximate. The one in a direct quote is a little less clear, but I think I intended the same think there as well, since the age of Lyka’s ward Tallah is not known particularly precisely.

    Moreover, as I searched through my writing for noun phrases starting with “some,” I came to the conclusion that there was a definite similarity between the usages like, “some fifteen or twenty paces,” and other uses with some but no number. Here are a few more quotations, in which the use of some seems to carry the implication that the entity being described is, being hypothetical, not necessarily described accurately:

    The long barrel of the well focused the eye’s sight on Damel alone, and as he imagined himself under the gaze of some lumbering one-eyed god, the wizard felt unpleasantly exposed.

    He felt like something nefarious was underway even as he stood here, debating futilely with these bizarre creations—which seemed with every passing second more like the products of some mad sorcerer’s delusions.

    Timidly, he touched the strange blue cladding, which some devil or necromancer had placed there to fill the horrible gap in her flesh.

    Staying within the fantasy genre, Fili uses the construction for a bit of wordplay:

    “Someone at the door!” he said, blinking.
    “Some four, I should say by the sound,” said Fili.* “Besides, we saw them coming along behind us in the distance.”

    It is not clear whether the uncertainty about the the number is relevant here. There are actually five dwarves; however, the narrative points out that the reason for the inaccuracy in Fili’s number is that one more dwarf had caught up with the group of four that Fili and Kili had spotted as they themselves approach Bag Eng.

    * The first time I typed this, I automatically entered “Kili” here. Having typed Fili’s name a few second’s earlier, I was automatically primed not to repeat the same name but to use his brother’s—since the two young dwarves are rarely mentioned separately in The Hobbit, and Fili’s name typically comes first.

  37. … the disappearance of the Loch Ness monster. The truth can be found in an East End chipper.

    Any country that prizes deep-fried Mars bars surely wouldn’t allow such a delicacy out across the border(?) Or did you mean East End of Glasgow?

  38. PlasticPaddy says

    I agree that a “pie and mash shop” is not the same as a “chipper”, although many would patronise both sort of establishment (or be too hungry and inebriated to make fine distinctions).

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