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Every so often, here at Language Log Plaza we come across usage advice that's new to us. Today's find comes from Tim Moon, who's working on my OI! project at Stanford this summer. It's from Robert Burchfield's The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1998), on the expression by the hundreds and the like:

the unidiomatic with plural; either by the hundred or by hundreds (p. 775)

Notice the usage label: "unidiomatic". Where does this come from? Not from a search of texts, to see which variant is most used, especially by "good writers". Instead, this is an expression of Burchfield's personal taste in the matter (a lot of usage advice is expressions of personal taste). As it happens, this is not Tim Moon's taste, or mine; both of us judge by the hundreds to be the most natural of the three, though all of them are acceptable. We now have some evidence that there are others agree with us, and have so far been unable to find any other handbook that takes a position — any position — on the matter.

Tim started by doing a crude Google search on the competing expressions, getting the numbers:

by the hundreds: 3,300,000
by hundreds: 2,400,000
by the hundred: 267,000

That is, by the hundreds comes out on top (at least on the web), with more hits than the other two variants put together. However, each of these searches is going to pick up some irrelevant hits. So I tried a more constrained search, and got the same results:

came by the hundreds: 11,200
came by hundreds: 6,600
came by the hundred: 1,990

I see no easy way to do such searches on "elite writers", and merely polling random people for their opinions is unlikely to give interpretable data. (I'm allowing comments, in the hope that someone can report some usage adviser other than Burchfield with a published opinion in the matter. But I'm asking people not to just post about their own personal tastes, entertaining though that might be.)

I have wondered if there's anything behind Burchfield's taste. Note that the idiom by the hundreds has the article the of the idiom by the hundred and the explicit plural of the idiom by hundreds, so it's possible that at some level Burchfield was thinking of by the hundreds as redundantly marked, maybe as a result of blending the other two variants (which would make it an inadvertent error that then spread to wider use). In that story, the other two idioms would have to have been the historical originals, with by the hundreds an innovation.

This is all speculation. I have no evidence about the history, and I can imagine other plausible stories. By the hundreds (and the like) could have been the historical original, with the other two variants arising as simplifications of it. Or, of course, the variants could have arisen independently.


  1. John Lawler said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

    I agree with your and Tim Moon's intuition that the arthrous plural by the hundreds is the best of the three; I would use the anarthrous plural by hundreds only if I wished to imply 'in groups of roughly 100'. I can't imagine a context where I'd ever use the arthrous singular by the hundred, although I'd recognize it, if someone used it, as the same construction as by the dozen.
    And I find *by the dozens terrible. It does seem to me that by the hundreds is the actual idiom here, also OK in by the thousands/millions/billions/… but not in dozens.

    I'm also familiar with a more literary version that has an anaphoric element:
    in their ?*dozens/?hundreds/thousands/millions/….

  2. Jem said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

    Here's a French-English grammar published in 1999 with a preview digitized by Google Books:


    Near the bottom of page 265, we read that the French 'par Q-aines' should be translated as 'by the Q-nds', with an example sentence translated: "Il y a des oiseaux par milliers" becomes "There are birds by the thousands".

    It's not a usage guide, to be sure, but it's something.

  3. rootlesscosmo said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 3:07 pm

    "His sisters and his cousins, whom he reckons up by dozens"

    "I Am the Monarch of the Sea," from W.S. Gilbert, H.M.S. Pinafore (1878)

    "Reckons by the dozens" scans, though "reckons by the dozen" doesn't rhyme.

  4. John H said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 3:07 pm

    I applied the same method for the word score.

    by the scores: 86,400

    by scores: 274,000
    by the score: 856,000

    The results are a mirror of those you've demonstrated for hundred.

    There are many more competing meanings for these score phrases than there are for your hundred phrases. But would that be enough to produce these results?

    Anecdata point: by the hundred sounds best to me, from the UK.

  5. Faldone said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 3:19 pm

    Just sort of a rough, first-order feeling here, "by the hundreds" sounds like some unspecific large number of things coming at me but "by hundreds" sounds more like things coming at me in groups of (roughly) a hundred. An example of the latter would be something like, "Count to one-million by hundreds." "By the hundred" is somehow foreign enough to my idiolect that I don't really have a feeling about it.

  6. Picky said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 3:24 pm

    Perhaps this is an Atlantic divide, because Mr Burchfield (largely Anglified), Sir WS Gilbert and I have the same idioms.

  7. Mark Liberman said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 3:46 pm

    LION has:

    "by the hundreds" 26
    "by hundreds" 332
    "by the hundred" 91

    This is no doubt where Burchfield got his taste.

    The examples of "by the hundreds" are mainly recent and/or American. But not all: there's Anthony Trollope in Phineas Finn, "Capitalists by the dozen were creating capitalists by the hundreds"; and of course William Shakespeare, Henry IV part I, "Then 'tis like, if there come a hot Sunne, and this ciuill buffetting hold, wee shall buy Maiden-heads as they buy Hob-nayles, by the Hundreds."

  8. Brett said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 3:56 pm

    In the fiction subcorpora of the BNC and the COCA, things pan out as follows:
    by the hundreds
    BNC: 0 COCA: 275
    by hundreds
    BNC: 5 COCA: 369

  9. NW said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 4:02 pm

    Google Books sometimes gives a better sample of published writers, but here all three are overwhelmed by irrelevant hits. If anything, though, it favours 'by the hundreds'. The plural is appropriate for waves and onslaughts; I have no opinion on the 'the' with waves. If there were any goods that came in boxes of 100, they'd be ordered by the hundred.

  10. Haamu said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 4:49 pm

    Others seem to be hinting at this, but it ought to be stated outright that there are two meanings here.

    We sold them by the hundreds = we sold an unspecified large number of them.

    We sold them by the hundred = we sold them in packages or lots of 100.

    Burchfield's single usage note (at least as it appears excerpted here) can't really do for both.

  11. language hat said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 4:53 pm

    Odd; my third edition of Burchfield/Fowler (1996) is much wordier (s.v. "the," p. 775):

    5 by the hundred, etc. The mild revelations of a gentle domestic existence which some royal personages have given us command readers by the hundreds of thousands. The idiomatic English is by the hundred thousand; by hundreds of thousands will also pass, but with the plural the is not used. So also with dozen, score, etc.

    …and on checking my first edition of Fowler (1926), I find that the entry is identical except that it is section 2 of "the" rather than section 5 (and of course employs Fowler's invariable "&c" for "etc"). So it has nothing to do with Burchfield's personal taste, and we're talking about a description of alleged usage circa WWI, which has presumably long gone by the boards. (Of course, it should not have been repeated a half-century later, but such are the joys of usage guides.)

  12. Neil T said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

    For me, as a British speaker, only 'by the hundred' sounds acceptable. The others sound plain odd to me, as does 'by the boards' in language hat's post. Were you taking the Michael?!

  13. mollymooly said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 5:47 pm

    The OED, s.v. by:
    [sense 25]. Succession of numerical groups or quantities, later of individuals, of the same class is indicated by "by":
    […subsense b] followed by the n. of quantity in pl., as by hundreds, by inches, by files, by degrees; also by times, by turns (obs.), = ‘time after time, turn after turn’.
    a1300 Cursor M. 4710 Togider {th}ei flocked in {th}at lond Bi hundrides & bi {th}ousond.
    […] 1869 FREEMAN Norm. Conq. (1876) III. xii. 146 By twenties, by hundreds, by thousands, the force gathered.

    sv. hundred:
    1. The cardinal number equal to ten times ten, or five score: denoted by the symbols 100 or C. a. As n. or quasi-n., with plural.
    (a) In singular. Usually a (arch. an) hundred, emphatically one hundred; in phrases expressing rate, the hundred.
    […] 1885 Times (weekly ed.) 17 Apr. 9/4 Tickets fabricated by the hundred.
    […] (b) In plural: hundreds.
    […] 1617 MORYSON Itin. III. 78 Great store of red Deare..which the Princes kill by hundreds at a time.

    8 other relevant citations for by hundreds, e.g.:
    1849 MACAULAY Hist. Eng. I. iii. 380 It was vehemently argued..that saddlers and spurriers would be ruined by hundreds.
    1946 BLUNDEN Shelley i. 20 To the July Fair..folk came in from the country by hundreds and thousands, and ‘bough houses’ for their refreshment crowded the roadways.

    10 other relevant citations for by the hundred, e.g.:
    1885 MRS. E. LYNN LINTON Chr. Kirkland I. i. 15 At Easter, eggs came in by the hundred.
    1879 Amer. Punch Apr. 40/1 Written to order by the hundred, by a Dime novelist in New York.

    No citations for by hundred.

  14. mollymooly said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 5:55 pm

    8 relevant OED cites for by the hundreds. 7 are American, 5 post-1970. The exception:
    1923 in M. BOX Trial of Marie Stopes (1967) 166 A. As a matter of fact..these things have been used by the hundreds… Q. Bought at rubber shops, rubber goods' shops? Ibid. 254 Contraceptives are for sale at what have been called, I think, rubber shops?

  15. Tim Silverman said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 6:04 pm

    Also British here, and "by the hundred" sounds normal to me, and "by the hundreds" a bit wrong, although it seems to depend on context. "By hundreds" sounds reasonable, but I'm not sure I'd ever use it myself. "By the boards" just sounds like nonsense.

  16. John Cowan said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 6:38 pm

    Neil T., Language Hat: by the boards for by the board sounds weird to me too. The board in question is a ship's deck, originally, which to be sure is made of boards, or was.

  17. Mr Punch said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 8:00 pm

    I'm American, and "by the hundred" sounds right to me, while "by the hundreds" does not. "Hundred" here is a unit of measure; I wouldn't buy gasoline "by the gallons," or fabric "by the yards."

  18. language hat said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 8:14 pm

    by the boards for by the board sounds weird to me too.

    To me too! I must have been subliminally influenced by all the hundreds running around.

  19. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 9:26 pm

    I assume Fowler/Burchfield would accept as idiomatic a possessive pronoun before "hundreds," as e.g. "the Aryans will be smitten by their fifties and their hundreds, by their hundreds and their thousands" (from an 1898 translation of the Zend-Avesta that Google Books popped up). I'm not sure it's an exceptionless rule that you can always stick a "the" wherever you could stick a "their," but it seems like a pretty strong trend.

  20. Tim Leonard said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 9:57 pm

    Google Scholar (perhaps representing more carefully edited text than Google as a whole) has:
    15,900 for "by the hundreds"
    44,700 for "by hundreds"
    7,610 for "by the hundred"

  21. bfwebster said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 11:19 pm

    Hmm. American here; "by the hundreds" sounds right, "by the hundred" sounds funny. The reverse is true for 'scores', i.e., "by the score" sounds right, "by the scores" sounds even stranger than "by the hundred".

  22. Ellen said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 11:49 pm

    I think meaning does make a difference, as someone noticed. Out of context none of the variations were sounding right to me, so I looked them up on Google.

    "by the hundreds" seems to have the same meaning as "hundreds of", as in, a big number of something. I did not see, in the first page of hits, any uses that refered to groups of 100.

    "by the hundred" I thought sounded odd.

    And "by hundreds" each was "… by hundreds of…" (except one where "hundreds" meant hundreds of people), I think not the same construction.

  23. Rob said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 12:40 am

    Bret, above, only searched the fiction subset of the BNC. If he'd searched the entire corpus he'd have found the following:
    by the hundreds: 12 (11 idiomatic)
    by the hundred: 6 (but 1 of these is "by the hundred thousand")
    by hundreds: 57 (but this includes non-idiomatic uses as I'm sure any google search will)

    Saying the the plural version is unidiomatic seems quite off-base.

  24. Barrie England said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 2:18 am

    A sentence such as ‘They fell by the hundred’ would be unexceptionable to British ears. There can be no objection to it, any more than there can be an objection to singular ‘hundred’ after other numerals, as in ‘three hundred’, rather than ‘three hundreds’.

    However, there may be a more general trend towards the plural where the singular was used in the past. ‘We’re not out of the woods yet’ seems now to be more frequently heard than ‘We’re not out of the wood yet’.

  25. peter said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 3:58 am

    Barrie England said (August 5, 2009 @ 2:18 am):

    "However, there may be a more general trend towards the plural where the singular was used in the past. ‘We’re not out of the woods yet’ seems now to be more frequently heard than ‘We’re not out of the wood yet’.

    Ah, plurals! Compare the use of sport and sports in (respectively) Australia and the USA, with the use of maths and math. Long ago, I concluded the only explanation for these differing usages was the each country had only a finite number of final "s" letters to go round, and each had deployed their country's allocations differently.

  26. Chris Hunt said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 3:59 am

    Another brit, and another supporter for "by the hundred", though frankly all three constructions sound a little contrived. I think I'd be more likely to say "people came *in their* hundreds" rather than use any kind of "by the" expression.

  27. James said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 4:59 am

    I agree that there appears to be a semantic distinction. I would say "They came by the hundreds" but "They only sell ball bearings by the hundred." In the first case, the difference, it seems to me, is that in the second case, it must be an integer multiple of 100. It would be nice if someone could tease this out.

  28. Doug said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 7:13 am

    "I have wondered if there's anything behind Burchfield's taste. "

    The same advice appeared in the pre-Burchfield second edition (1965) of Fowler's MEU (p. 630). So behind Burchfield's taste, there's Fowler's taste.

  29. ø said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 8:07 am

    physics, metaphysics, semantics, ethics, mathematics

    I don't think anyone treats these (or maths)as plurals.

    Is it just accident that logic and music have no s?

    US woods is a plural with no singular. Sports maybe usually singular, except when it's the plural of the singular sport (How many sports do you play?), but can it also be a plural with no singular?

  30. Picky said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 10:23 am

    So, perhaps the simple explanation is that "behind Burchfield's taste" is just a statement of what he (and Fowler and Gower before him) saw to be idiomatic in BrE, innocent of a different idiom in the United States.

    Still, let's have a go at the bloke by all means.

  31. Andrew said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 10:39 am

    I have seen 'a woods' occasionally in American writing.

    [(myl) Not only American — from Glyn Maxwell, "The boys at twilight", 1995:

    25 The boys flare up with a hapless glow,
    26 And follow it out to a woods they know
    27 Green-smelling and smothered as years ago.

    This is not, of course, to be confused with "a shrubbery", which is entirely British in origin.]

  32. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 12:28 pm

    While I'm sympathetic with those who feel some subtle semantic variation (and the Trollope quote in an earlier comment which goes from "by the dozen" to "by the hundreds" may be shifting deliberately for just that reason), I have a datapoint to offer that suggests complete interchangability for some speakers. I couldn't remember whether the repeated phrase in the Replacements song "Alex Chilton" was "children by the million" or "children by the millions" and internet opinion seemed roughly equally divided. So I listened as carefully as I could, then listened again, and I swear it sounds like Westerberg is singing "millions" the first two times the line comes up but "million" the third time.* I seriously doubt (but who knows) that this was intentional variation for the sake of some subtle poetic effect; I think it's more likely it was an inadvertent and unnoticed internal inconsistency which I would treat as evidence of truly free variation (at least for one native speaker from the Minneapolis area born 1959).

    *Based on most plausible approximation of the original master I found on internet after cursory search and listened to through computer speakers while eating lunch at desk; I would want to listen to the first-pressing vinyl copy on the home stereo before submitting this finding for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

  33. Ellen K. said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

    Subtle semantic variation? Talking about lots of something in one large group, versus several groups of something is hardly a subtle distinction, it seems to me. What's used for what meaning may be more subtle, but the difference in meaning isn't.

  34. Karen said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

    US woods is a plural with no singular.

    While "woods" is more common (usually "some") I've heard and doubtless said both "a wood" and "the wood". There's a book called "In A Tangled Wood" which is by an American, Joyce Dyer.

  35. Mr Fnortner said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 3:01 pm

    Perhaps, if one were to consider a dozen or a hundred, in their earliest usages, to be collectives such as are bushel and truckload, by the dozen and by the hundred could make sound semantic and historical sense, just as do by the bushel and by the truckload. Once the quantity escapes its collective confines, there's no getting the toothpaste back into the tube, and it's cousins by the dozens and other examples by the hundreds.

  36. peter said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

    "While "woods" is more common (usually "some") I've heard and doubtless said both "a wood" and "the wood". There's a book called "In A Tangled Wood" which is by an American, Joyce Dyer."

    Not to forget Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. Although not by an American, it was first performed and first recorded there.

  37. mollymooly said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 6:05 pm

    maths is not plural. Just as Barbie says "math is hard", so Sindy says "maths is hard", not "maths are hard". The extra "s" is preserved from "mathematics", also singular [except in parts of Ireland]. If we were to show the origins, they would be written MATH. and MATH'S respectively.

    Other "-s" British abbreviations are odder:
    * turps turpentine; OED says "the final -s appears to be collective."
    * meths from "methylated spirits", which is plural, but "meths" is singular; cf. [orig U.S.] "crystal meth".

  38. language hat said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 6:24 pm

    The same advice appeared in the pre-Burchfield second edition (1965) of Fowler's MEU (p. 630). So behind Burchfield's taste, there's Fowler's taste.

    What am I, the Invisible Man? As I said way up there, the entry is taken verbatim from Fowler's first edition. It is not in any way a reflection of Burchfield.

  39. Andrew said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 6:32 pm

    Surely it is a reflection of Burchfield, in that he was free to delete it, and did not do so. If it had ben unidiomatic in Fowler's time, but had since become idiomatic, that would have been the right thing to do.

  40. Doug said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 6:47 pm

    Language Hat said, "What am I, the Invisible Man? "

    Only to those of us who skim too quickly before posting.
    My apologies.

  41. language hat said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 7:35 pm

    Surely it is a reflection of Burchfield, in that he was free to delete it, and did not do so. If it had ben unidiomatic in Fowler's time, but had since become idiomatic, that would have been the right thing to do.

    Well, true enough, but lazily leaving something in isn't the same as creating it.

    My apologies.

    Oh, no need, I was being melodramatic.

  42. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 9:36 pm

    In "Words Into Type," the third edition, Skillin et al copyright 1974, the section on definite articles has a subsection on "elliptical style" on p.374. It says "Instructions are sometimes written in an elliptical style, omitting articles." It gives an example then has a list of three idioms, and doesn't show a preference for "the" with "thousands":

    in place of not in the place of
    out of the question not out of question
    by the thousand or by thousands

  43. Simon said,

    August 7, 2009 @ 7:48 am

    I had had a thought, but cannot prove it, that the apparent plural morpheme "-s" on "by the hundreds" comes originally from a genitive singular in a distributive sense (cf. Latin "centies"). Perhaps it is a relic genitive singular (cf. "to-wards") used in a distributive sense that has since been reanalyzed as a plural and then later dropped.

  44. Stephen Jones said,

    August 7, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

    The BNC figures are
    'by hundreds' 57
    'by the hundreds' 12
    'by the hundred' 6

  45. Stephen Jones said,

    August 7, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

    And I've just looked at every simple example in the BNC after reading Zwicky's further post about it.

    Relevant BNC usages: (total figures in brackets)
    'by hundreds' 1 (57)!
    'by the hundreds' 7 (12)
    'by the hundred' 6 (6)!

    A rather clear warning against the lazy habit of just number crunching and not looking more closely into the meaning. I shall perform the appropriate penance for intellectual laziness!

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