Sunday 22 November 2009

On or so

A correspondent writes to ask if he is allowed to say I've spent the past hour or so in the hall to mean 'less than an hour'. He thinks he uses or so to mean 'roughly', and this allows a meaning of less as well as more. His friend disagrees. What do I think?

The OED definition suggests it could be either: 'or about that amount or number; or thereabout' (so, sense 33b); but the examples tell a different story. The first recorded usages are from Shakespeare, as follows:

If I could go to hell for an eternal moment or so (The Merry Wives of Windsor, 2.1.50)
Some two thousand strong, or so (Twelfth Night 3.2.59)

The first couldn't conceivably mean 'less than a moment': or so here means 'one or a bit more'. The second is an estimate by Sir Toby Belch of how much money he has had from Sir Andrew Aguecheek. If the money was counted up and found to be only £1990, nobody would accuse Belch of being a liar. It is a vague estimate only. Here, or so means 'more or less'.

This suggests a working principle: the force of the phrase depends on the quantity involved. With small numbers (and especially when the number is just one) the sense is driven upwards. I could not possibly use an hour or so to mean less than an hour. This upwards direction I think is always present, but its force diminishes as the numbers increase. So, I could say 1500 or so people read her blog, suggesting that it is more, but allowing (if challenged) that the figure could be less.

There may also be an effect from the noun that is being quantified. Time-scales are determinate, so an hour or so allows little flexibility. But I think there was an audience of 20 or so at the theatre allows the possibility that there were 19 (or so) because audiences are unpredictable.

I'd be interested to know if anyone has a different intuition about this.


Chaa006 said...

"How long do you think it will take ?". "Oh, about an hour or so.". If the job were to take only fifty minutes, I do not think that either party in the hypothetical exchange would feel that the estimate had been incorrect.

Eric Armstrong said...

An hour or so to me implies the 'more or less' tone because it has sixty minutes in it. Perhaps if you had said something like 'I walked only a block or so' I could agree with your point, as a block doesn't obviouly break down into other dimensions. But if it was 'I only walked 2 blocks or so,' personally, I would think 'somewhere between 1 and 3 blocks.' Maybe this is a North American usage pattern?

Eric Armstrong

Rick S said...

My intuition is definitely different. To me, in "an eternal moment or so" the "or so" binds to eternal, not moment, which necessarily means less than is possible, since no amount of time could be longer than eternity. Simply "a moment or so" seems a little redundant, since both "moment" and "or so" are vague about duration. Still, I wouldn't balk at it as emphasizing the vagueness.

"An hour or so" means "more or less" to me. I don't really understand what you're getting at by "time-scales are determinate" and "audiences are unpredictable". Time is continuous, and "or so" variance needn't stick to any particular units. Audiences are in units of one, obviously, but then I would never say "two people or so"; small numbers of concrete objects are too easily (even unconsciously) counted at a glance to allow for vagueness.

I guess I'm saying that for me, "or so" always means "more or less", and only applies to either continuous phenomena or non-countable-at-a-glance numbers of concrete objects. And possibly countable abstract objects, but that seems like an edge case; it can be pretty hard to decide where the boundaries of clouds and dreams and ocean waves are, since these phenomena occur over a broad range of scales. How big is the smallest cloud, how long the shortest dream, how high the shallowest wave?

Keith said...

Like the other commenters, my intuition is also very different. I don't quite understand why you say that an 'an hour or so' cannot mean less than an hour, but if it's because an hour is a determinate concrete unit then that suggests that it can only mean exactly one hour, or exactly two, or maybe exactly three, which seems very unlike the way the expression is actually used. If 'an hour or so' can mean an hour and ten minutes, then why shouldn't it mean fifty minutes?

DC said...

No reason at all. But that's what we're trying to get at. The fact of the matter is that, for many people (including me), an hour or so can't be less than an hour. For many others, evidently, it can.

OutEast said...

I share the wariness about the Merry Wives example - but because it seems to me to be a jocular use (emphasizing the oddness of thwe 'eternal moment' concept). In any case, I'm not sure Shakespeare's a great guide to contemporary idiomatic preferences!

My own intuition has 'or so' as 'more-or-less'. Contra Eric Armstron, I see no problem with 'a block or so' - but to me it wouldn't mean 'a block or two' but 'a block, give or take a house or two.'