Using precise and imprecise modifiers

Using vague modifiers to describe a quantity of something in everyday speech may be acceptable; it may even be useful or appropriate. However, it’s often considered improper in more formal writing. Following are some examples.

A bunch, a Lot, Many

A bunch is “a connected group or cluster of things; a group “. A lot is “a number of things or people collectively”. Many means “a large number; numerous”. Examples:

We picked a bunch of grapes. A bunch of us got together for lunch.

A lot of people gathered around the unusual object.

Many hands make light work.

A Couple, a Few, Several

A couple of something means “two taken together or a pair”. However, in the following sentence, the meaning is not likely to be precise: We’ll be back in a couple of minutes. Most people would fail the test of being gone for exactly 120 seconds. The speaker/writer should probably have written: We’ll be back in a few of minutes.

A few of something means “not many but more than one”. This term is specifically imprecise. Example: We’ll be back in a few minutes. This could be a time from one minute to maybe a half hour.

Several more than or less than “a few”. Example: She took several minutes to decide.

And then there’s quite a few, meaning “a fairly large number”)versus quite few, meaning “a fairly small number”. Examples:

Quite a few people went for the deal.

Quite few people went for the deal.

About, almost, approximately, around, close to, roughly

These words are used to estimate an amount or quantity. Examples:

He’s about 6 feet tall.

It’s almost 3 o’clock.

It weighs approximately 3 pounds.

It’s somewhere around Times Square.

The car is roughly 10 years old. Approximate dates are often expressed using the Latin word circa, which means “around”. It’s often abbreviated as: c, c., ca, ca.


In terms of quantity, great means “unusually or comparatively large in size or dimensions; large in number, numerous; unusual or considerable in degree, power, intensity, etc.Examples:

It took a great amount of money to repair the damage.

She was in great pain.

Using terms like “great big …” or “great horde of …” is redundant. Putting terms like this together is mostly for creating emphasis.

Majority and Plurality

Majority has a specific meaning—it’s more than half the total of a quantity of tangible or intangible items. Examples:

The majority of (at least 6 out of 10) the apples in the basket were rotten.

The majority of (at least 3 out of 5) ideas were worth pursuing.

In an election, it means getting at least one vote more than 50 percent of all votes cast. Majority does not mean “a great number”, “a lot of”, etc. Note: If precision is not important, as as it might not be in the two examples above, “most” can replace “the majority of”.

Plurality means the largest number of tangible or intangible items in one sub-group among at least three sub-groups. This term most often applies to elections, where it means: the candidate who receives the most votes in an election in which there are three or more candidates (often expressed as a percentage). Example: Three candidates receive 42%, 37%, and 21%, respectively. The winner would be the candidate who received a plurality of 42%. Note: While a majority may be a plurality, a plurality is not a majority unless it’s greater than 50%.

More and Less

More means “a greater quantity, amount, measure, degree, or number (e.g., I need more time.). But is the additional time just a minute (e.g., to make a quick decision) or 6 months (e.g. to get enough money to pay off a debt)?

Less means “to a smaller extent, amount, or degree” (e.g., I make less than she does.). But how much less? 2 cents? $10,000 a year?

Some and Any

Some means “undetermined or unspecified”. Any means “without specification or identification”. Examples:

Do you have some idea where we are?

Do you have any idea where we are?

The first sentence implies that we’re not completely lost, while the second sentence implies “Where the heck are we?”

We could meet some time.

We could meet any time.

The first sentence is a virtual put-off (“some time, but maybe never”), while the second sentence is much more inviting (you just name the time and place).

Herd, Flock, etc

A herd is “a number of animals kept, feeding, or traveling together, though usually constrained in usage to 4-legged animals” (e.g., They kept a small herd of goats.).

A flock is “a number of animals of one kind, especially sheep, goats, or birds, that keep or feed together, though most often used to refer to birds” (e.g., A large flock of geese flew overhead.).

Other similar words include: gang, horde, mob, pack, swarm, throng.)

Awhile or a while

Awhile means “for a time”, and is used when referring to a short non-specific span of time” (e.g., Sit and rest awhile.). Awhile is an adverb (used to modify a verb). Trick: In this sentence, awhile can be replaced be any other adverb and the sentence will still make sense (e.g., Sit and rest quietly.).

A while means “an imprecise, vague, or indeterminate period of time” (e.g., I think I’ll read for a while. I remember, but it was a while ago. A while back, things were different.). While is a noun, and a while is a noun phrase. The noun phrase is often preceded by a preposition, such as for, in or ago. While can be modified to be even more vague (e.g., a little while, a short while, quite a while). Trick: In any of the above sentences, while can be replaced by any other period of time and the sentence will still make sense (e.g., I think I’ll read for some time.).

Frequently, Often

Frequently means “many times, with some regularity. (e.g., She tries to get out and walk as frequently as she can.).

Often also means “many times”, but more irregularly (e.g., He tries to get out and walk as often as he can.). The first example implies adhering to a regular schedule, while the second example does not.


Good writers can use imprecise terms, especially in fiction. However, if you’re writing about something where quantity actually matters (e.g., election results, polls, recipes, sports), it’s best to be as precise as possible.

Copyright 2016 by Affordable Editing Services

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