Unspecified large number

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Some corrections to and clarifications of my posting on by the hundreds / by hundreds / by the hundred.

First, an apology for having posted about Burchfield's note on by the hundreds (which declares it to be "unidiomatic") without going back and checking the original Fowler and Gowers's edition of Fowler; instead Tim Moon and I just looked at our project files about Fowler and Gowers, and these files were (for some reason) missing coverage of the expression.

Now we know that the trail goes back to Fowler and that the "unidiomatic" label reflects Fowler's taste.

Second, an apology for rushing to post and not adding all the qualifications about searches for the three expressions at issue. Just searching for by the hundredsby hundredsby the hundred, looking for uses conveying 'in large number(s)', pulls up a fair amount of irrelevant material: instances of by the hundred 'in lots of 100', examples like "noticed by hundreds of researchers", and so on. In my earlier posting I narrowed the search by adding the verb came, and found all three variants to be attested, but with different frequencies (with the hundreds well in front). I find all three variants acceptable, but prefer the hundreds.

Commenters tried a variety of searches (and expanded the scope to include score and dozen, which don't seem to work quite the same way as hundred and thousand). Mark Liberman noted that hits for the hundreds in books seem to be "mainly recent and/or American" — mainly but by no means exclusively. All three variants are attested for some time back and in British as well as American sources, but it's reasonable to speculate that Fowler's taste reflected British preferences of his time.

A final remark about a misunderstanding that crops up repeatedly in comments on Language Log postings about variation. When I expressed a personal preference for the variant the hundreds, some readers seem to have taken me to be disparaging the other variants, and responded by saying they found one of the other variants (in particular, the hundred) unexceptionable. But I never dissed the other variants, and indeed said quite clearly that I found all three variants acceptable. Different people have different preferences, and many people will use two or all three of the variants on different occasions.

My current guess at what's going on in these responses is that some people are implicitly subscribing to some version of the One Right Way principle, so that if one variant is allowed, other variants are disfavored, or even disallowed. But no scholar of variation or usage holds to such a principle.

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