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Some stuff

From time to time, some minor fixation, previously unnoticed, moves like a virus through the copy desk. I don’t think that we used to find some in the sense of about with a number to be objectionable, as in “some 35 opposition leaders,” but now I see a change indicated every time it turns up in a proof.

Let’s clarify. Some as an adverb to indicate an approximate number is a well-established usage, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which explains that it is most commonly used in this sense with round numbers. Merriam-Webster’s identifies a secondary sense in which the word is used with an exact number as a mild intensifier to indicate surprise.

The late John Bremner objects to the usage in Words on Words as something “that has crept into newspaper jargon.” Theodore Bernstein’s Careful Writer also deplores it, but only in the specific context in which it refers to an exact number rather than an approximate one. He also dismisses constructions such as some thirty-odd leading figures as redundant (which it is). My learned colleague Bill Walsh agrees that about is preferable, but with round numbers, and calls some “a wimpy cross between about and I know.

Fowler, the New Fowler’s and Garner’s American Usage are silent. Perhaps they did not find it a serious issue.

Expressions using some as an adjective to indicate approximation are commonplace, such as “to have been married some years.” Functionally, it is equivalent to about. The question is whether it can also serve legitimately as an adverb.

I can’t say whether some suspicion of colloquialism or some regional difference may be in play. But some fails to set off the editing alarm in my head. I changed that sentence that had been marked in proof — that “police in Islamabad had orders to take some 35 opposition leaders into preventive custody” — to “about 35 opposition leaders,” but I don’t think that the change made for much of an improvement.

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:52 AM | | Comments (5)


"Some" also is frequently misused with precise numbers as a device to avoid starting a sentence with a figure, as in "Some 379 people stood in line for the supermarket opening."

I have never understood why it's so awful to start a sentence with, say, "379."

Where does "around" fall in this discussion?

To my ear, it would seem a more suitable replacement; "some" and "around" both evoke a sense of being near the target either above or below, while "about" is a The-Price-Is-Right word meaning "possibly exact but more than likely below".

I don't think I've seen "some" paired up with a specific figure; that doesn't look quite right to me. But I'm comfortable with the other uses.

When used as an adverb, it can help to reduce redundancies in sentence construction if one has to deal with several sets of figures.

And there is always 'nearly,'or 'close to'. "Some" makes me wonder how many or how few, or "some" as opposed to "others". Either way, the construction is over-used to the point of the trivial. (Incidentally, I heard some hyena on television gnus (CNN, most likely) use "firestorm improperly last week. Obviously the other hyenas at CNN don't read this column. I suspect they don't read at all.)

I hear "some" a lot in broadcast copy. Perhaps that's how it has seeped into stories in print and online.

I often hear and see "a handful" of things in news stories. Those references leave me looking for a specific number or at least an approximation. If there were only a few, can't someone count and tell us exactly how many?

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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