numerous of NPdef

(This is pretty technical, and there’s no sex of any kind in it, or plants, animals, food, or clothing, or art, music, dance, movies, or tv, but try to bear with me.)

In things like numerous of the/our customers, we see a syntactic structure that has been widely criticized, but turns out to be more widespread than people suppose — and there’s a reasonable explanation for how it might have arisen.

I’ll start with Paul Brians’s Common Errors in English Usage on the subject:

“Numerous customers returned the garlic-flavored toothpaste.“ “Numbers of customers returned the toothpaste.” “Many of the customers.” Any of these is fine.

But “numerous of the customers”? Yuck.

Similar blanket prohibitions have been proposed on some usage advice sites, bur Brians’s treatment is more interesting, because he wouldn’t have made an entry for the usage if he hadn’t had a fair number of examples from real life; there’s no point in warning people off some usage if almost no one is inclined to it.

Suppose that Brians had had only one or two occurrences. Then the obvious analysis of them would be that they were what’s known in the error literature as syntactic blends — inadvertent errors that occur when a speaker or writer is (unconsciously) contemplating two alternative formulations of some idea and ends up with a combination of the two. In this case, the competitors would be

(a) many of the customers and (b) numerous customers

combining to yield

(c) numerous of the customers

(Note: I will eventually propose an account of things like (c) that does, in a sense, treat them as a combination of structures like (a) and (b), but not via the route of inadvertent blending.)

Now, some facts. First, a Google search on

{ “numerous of the” –most –least }

(the exclusions are to get the most/least numerous of the Nom, where the partitive of-phrase is licensed by a superlative modifier of numerous, out of the way) pulls up hundreds of examples, many more that you’d expect from an inadvertent blend.

And then there’s OED3 (Dec. 2003), in which the current predominant usage of numerous is adjectival, as in

(d) the numerous problens with your analysis (are obvious) and numerous problems with your analysis (came to light)

but there is also a pronominal usage ‘a large number of’, with a partitive of-phrase — that is, things like (c) — with the note:

Not uncommon in colloquial usage, but rare in formal written English.

The dictionary does give three examples (all with numerous of + NPdef) from formal written English (British, American, and Australian):

1844   Thackeray Barry Lyndon i. ii, in Fraser’s Mag. Jan. 46/2   Mr. Mick..brought numerous of his comrades with him.

1968   N.Y. Times 7 Apr. x17/1   Blunted the awareness of numerous of its inhabitants to the historical significance of many of its buildings.

1995   Queensland Parl. Debates 17 Oct. 379/2   An additional struggle that these carers I have named, and numerous of their colleagues, are enduring.

Now to another piece of English syntax: the syntax of the word many. The word is sometimes adjectival:

(e) the many problens with your analysis (are obvious) and many problems with your analysis (came to light) [cf. (e)]

but sometimes pronominal, with partitive of + NPdef:

(f) many of the customers

Three factors then work together to give us things like (c), parallel to (f). First, the power of analogy based on synonymy:

(A) Ceteris paribus, we expect that synonyms will share their syntax.

It then follows that since numerous and many both mean (roughly) ‘large in number’, and many has pronominal as well as adjectival uses, we would expect that numerous will also have pronominal as well as the adjectival uses that have long been standard, and apparently people have been acting on that expectation since the 19th century.

This analogy is promoted by a piece of oft-given usage advice:

(B) Ceteris paribus, avoid a semantically more general, metaphorically “weak” word by striking it out or by replacing it in favor of a more specific, more contentful, metaphorically “stronger” one.

I’m not recommending this principle — I think it’s often quite silly — but it’s popular among usage critics and has been wielded against, for example, the modifier very; the advice is to avoid it entirely, by striking it out or by replacing it by a stronger near-synonym like extremely.

Similarly for many, where the advice would be to avoid the “weak” word by using instead a stronger alternative like numerous ‘very large in number’, and that would promote the extension of numerous to pronominal uses.

But what says that many is weak, or at least weaker than numerous? Probably some small effect from the greater phonological weight of the three-syllable numerous, but mostly from one more principle:

(C) Very frequent words are semantically weak, and in particular, they are weaker than less frequent alternatives.

I haven’t checked the actual frequencies, though I think that in this case our first impressions are probably dependable. In general people are surprisingly good at grouping words into the categories very frequent, moderately frequent, and infrequent, with many going in the first, numerous in the second.

(B) and (C) taken together tell us to avoid frequent words, which strikes me as profoundly silly advice, taking the advice to use vivid vocabulary to absurd heights, but there are usage critics who believe in this advice passionately. If you follow them, you’ll hanker to extend numerous to pronominal uses.

Somewhat puzzling data to come in a future posting.

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