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Language quantifiers gone bad

In the 1980s the curriculum at the Joshua Eaton Elementary School in Reading, MA, included a lesson on the differences between language quantifiers, such as several, many, some, a couple, and a few.

Despite the good intentions of my teacher, I often forget where you draw the line between “some” and “many.” In my writing and that of my clients’ when I am editing, I avoid using such words and instead use the number or a more specific quantifier to avoid ambiguities. After all, not everyone got that lesson at Joshua Eaton and, if they did, they might not have remembered it.

From “What’s the trouble: How doctors think” by Jerome Groopman in the January 29, 2007 New Yorker:

When he [Harrison Alter, an emergency-room physician] had asked whether she [a patient] had taken any medication, including over-the-counter drugs, she had replied, “A few aspirin.” As Alter told me, “I didn’t define with her what ‘a few’ meant.” It turned out to be several dozen.

That ambiguity, in part, led to the doctor misdiagnosing the patient with subclinical pneumonia, when she in fact had aspirin toxicity.

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One Response to Language quantifiers gone bad

  1. Kathy May 14, 2007 at 6:19 am #

    I just happened upon this site, and I love it!

    However, I couldn’t help but notice the error in the line: “From ‘What’s the trouble: How doctor’s think’ by Jerome Groopman in the January 29, 2007 New Yorker:”

    Hint: a common misuse of the apostrophe

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