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January 24, 2004


Jeffrey Kramer

Maybe irrelevant, but John Barrow in Pi in the Sky: A History of Numbers makes the point that all languages have numbers for 'one' and 'two' and treat 'oneness' and 'duality' as concepts, but not all languages have numbers for 'three' or higher (they may be designated 'two-and-one'). Implying, perhaps, that 'one' and 'two' are the only numbers which come instinctively to human beings. 'Two' being the highest instinctive number, it may become mental shorthand for 'many', so the ubiquitous phrase "one or two" may be a kind of mental shorthand for "at least one and maybe a lot more." Consider, for example, "Were you drinking?" "I had one or two beers, your honor."


Funny you should mention it. I really like John Barrow - and I actually taught a chapter of Pi in the Sky a year ago. So I was having exactly this damn thought when I wrote the post. One and two are instinctive numbers. I think the 'one or two' (also the 'three or four') idiom is actually a way of communicating moderately precise numerical data while signalling that number isn't the crucial factor. You present numerical data without foregrounding it. For example, O'Brian obviously didn't want to wrongly hint to the reader that the number of sailors was important to what was going to happen next in the story. All the same, he offended against our counting instincts.


Sounds fine to me. But what it means exactly is difficult to explain.

How about:

"Out of the sailors, some remained staring at the sheet of blotting paper (etc.). Having reflected on the number of sailors so doing, I find I cannot say precisely, but it was at least one and probably less than three."

The element of vagueness and sloppiness with respect to number is crucial. If the narrator was paying attention to the number of sailors he (she?) would have no difficulty discerning the exact number, but he wasn't.

Due to this inherent vagueness, "X or Y", where X and Y are numbers, can occasionally mean "conceivably less than X or more than Y". E.g. "forty or fifty" would be consistent with 39 or 52.

In this case, "one or two" would not be consistent with zero, since this would negate the whole point of the sentence, but *might* be consistent with three!

"One or two" might be consistent with zero in a context such as this: "I would guess the car needed one or two repairs that year." If there were no repairs that year, but two the year before, this would be an accurate (but imprecise!) guess.

Jeffrey Kramer

I would also take "one or two" to be consistent with zero, three, or maybe even more than three. If the speaker says "I'd like to make one or two points in response...." and ends up stretching it to three, nobody is surprised; at four, there are grumbles and mutters; maybe not until he makes his fifth point does the audience start openly rebelling against the broken promise.

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