A number of complaints

Over the past decade or so, Australians (and possibly people of other nationalities, but I haven’t been keeping track) began to use ‘a number of’ to describe quantities greater than one.  This phrase annoys me for a number of reasons (five).  Here they are …
  • It’s vague.
    As an academic writer and editor I’m interested in clarity and accuracy, and ‘a number of’ doesn’t cut it.  I’ve heard and read ‘a number of’ used in conjunction with known quantities as small as two and as large as 10,000; hence, it’s not a very useful descriptor!  Think of the word ‘several’, which is generally accepted to mean quantities greater than two but not more than five; the Macquarie Dictionary defines it as ‘being more than two or three, but not many’.  ‘Several’ has a generally-understood meaning; ‘a number of’, in contrast, does not, so is vague and unhelpful.
  • It’s lazy.
    The actual quantity (or at least an approximate range) of concepts or occasions or people involved in something or other is usually easily ascertained, but many writers limply trot out ‘a number of’ instead.  For example, the Herald Sun’s report of the 10th of February 2011 on a proposed flood reconstruction levy contains the sentence “A number of programs aimed at reducing carbon emissions would be cut …”  Two? Four?  20?  Several?  Dozens?
  • It allows for deliberate obfuscation.
    Politicians and public servants are particularly fond of ‘a number of’, because it allows them to misrepresent a quantity which is actually quite small as quite large and vice versa.  For example: ‘a number of people were arrested’ … Note that the emphasis is also important, especially when spoken: ‘A number of protesters’ sounds like a lot more than a few, even though it may actually be three.  Beware ‘a large number of’!
  • It’s wordy.
    As an academic editor, I often have to trim down a section of a grant application from 2.5 pages to two, cut 600 words to get a paper under 2,500, or reduce a paragraph to 200 characters.  ‘A number of’ is three words and 11 characters (including spaces), whereas ‘several’, ‘some’ and ‘many’ are one word each and four to seven characters long. I frequently find I can save a couple of lines per page by removing or replacing ‘a number of’.
  • It’s usually completely unnecessary.
    There are a number of ways to improve your English expression … Remove the deadly phrase from the preceding sentence, and the sense isn’t changed in any meaningful way.  Even worse: “Police say a number of women and children were among the wounded” (ABC News Radio, 6.05am, 13/2/2011) – ‘women and children’ is already plural, so ‘a number of’ is utterly pointless.  This redundancy is extremely common.
My conclusion?  Avoid ‘a number of’ like the plague.
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