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We say ‘san-san-go-go – 三三五五’ in Japanese to describe the status of people coming, arriving, gathering, going, or leaving in a pair, trio, or group in succession in such a way, People gathered in the square ‘san-san-go-go.’ ‘San’ means three in Japanese. ‘Go’ means five, and ‘san-san-go- go’ is used adverbially.

I know “by ones and twos” is applied to the case more than “by one and one.”

When I consulted New Japanese English Dictionary published by Japanese publisher (Kenkyusha Publishing), I found the translation – ‘in threes and fives.’

I suspect if this is a literal translation of 3-3-5-5, and not standard English phrase.

Is there an idiom or phrase to express the status of people coming (arriving) and going (leaving) in the pack of three-to five individuals to a place incessantly?

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up vote 5 down vote accepted

You're right in your suspicion that "in threes and fives" is a literal translation and not idiomatic. You mention "in ones and twos," which is what I would have suggested as an answer. If you're looking for a phrase that means people coming or going specifically in groups of three to five, I can't think of one, but you could try:

The people were coming (going) in dribs and drabs. ("A series of negligible amounts.")

This gives a sense of disorganization, of a few here, a few there.

But in ones and twos is idiomatic and I would suspect quite satisfactory for most purposes: in small numbers.

Finally, it would be perfectly acceptable (though not idiomatic) to say

The people were coming (going) in groups of three to five.

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+1 I would though use "threes and fives" if they literally were in groups all - or almost all - of which had only 3 or 5 members, and I had some reason to care to point this out. This wouldn't be an idiomatic use, it would just be a plain description. I likewise would interpret it literally - that each group had 3 or 5 members or perhaps 3 to 5 members - if there were many exceptions who came in couples or larger groups, I would say the statement was incorrect. – Jon Hanna Jan 16 '13 at 10:11
Surely you'd steer clear of the idiomatic echo and say 'in groups of three and five'? – Edwin Ashworth Jan 16 '13 at 19:47
@EdwinAshworth I don't think I'd feel the need. I think "in groups of three and five" sounds more specific -- i.e. that there were *no groups of four. "In groups of three to five" leaves the option open for there to be groups of four, as well as possibly the odd group of two or six. – JAM Jan 16 '13 at 21:39
Sorry, JAM, I should have specified that I'm saying Jon's "threes and fives" sounds distinctly odd (see John Lawler's answer). – Edwin Ashworth Jan 16 '13 at 23:44

It's not really idiomatic, but it is a common utterance:

a few at a time

few : 1. An indefinitely small number of persons or things

The dictionary says indefinitely small and I think this covers the 3-5 range nicely, because two would be 'a couple', or we have 'in ones and twos' as mentioned in other answers for those specific cases.

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Idiomatic has the sense (usually listed first by dictionaries) commonly used (of expressions): characteristic of a particular language or dialect. 'A few at a time' certainly meets this criterion, though it's not 'an idiom' if non-compositionality is required in the definition of idiom (as it often is). – Edwin Ashworth Jan 16 '13 at 19:54
@EdwinAshworth- Thanks, I was using it in the "with a meaning that cannot be derived from its component words" Without that distinction I have hard time deciding what can be called idiomatic and what is simply a common colocation of words. – Jim Jan 16 '13 at 20:53
I think we've got to accept that 'idiomatic' 's primary meaning isn't 'pertaining to idioms' (with idiom taking its primary meaning). '... had a bath' is idiomatic, unlike the usually pompous-sounding 'bathed', but few would label the construction an idiom - it's so transparent nowadays. You're right in suggesting that the analysis of idioms is far from straightforward. The best (and a very thorough) treatment I've come across is Fixed Expressions and Idioms in English: A Corpus-Based Approach by Rosamund Moon. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 21 '13 at 23:44

There was a wonderful series of humorous underground papers by Paul Postal back in the early 1970s called "Linguistic Anarchy Notes", which dealt with syntactic problems that couldn't be handled then (and can't be handled now, either) by formal generative theories.

Like the pronoun reference in sentences like
- The alligator's tail fell off, but it grew back.
- His house burned down, but he eventually rebuilt it as a Georgian mansion.
I.e, exactly what does it refer to in these sentences?

One paper in this series (none of which are available on the Web, which is yet more shame for academic linguists) was entitled "Plus One, or How About Arithmetic?", and dealt with grammaticality facts of the following sorts:

  • Two or three of them are coming.
  • *Two or seventeen of them are coming.
  • They're arriving by ones and twos.
  • *They're arriving by threes and fives.
  • Six or seven of us voted against it.
  • *Seven or six of us voted against it.
  • There are ten or twelve of them.
  • *There are ten or eight of them.
  • There are a dozen or two of them.
  • *There are a dozen or six of them.

The generalization here is that the rules for combining number words into rough quantificational modifiers are extremely complex, and involve how close the numbers are to one another in sequence, and precisely how close the estimate is intended to be. This is the sort of thing that generative linguistics is not very good at.

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John Lawler. Thanks for a very informative answer. You are saying general quantifications of rough number of group constituents is complex and difficult. So the translation, “in threes and fives” in Kenkyusha’s New English Japanese Dictionary is acceptable as an English wording. It seems different from JAM’s answer, "in threes and fives" is a literal translation and not idiomatic. Now I’m left in limbo. – Yoichi Oishi Jan 16 '13 at 21:06
It's not idiomatic. It's a marked foreignism and thus it's not clear just what the range of the rough quantifier is intended to be. If you're translating, then put it in quotes or italics, add "as Japanese say", and try to define the phenomenon using more words. If one can't describe it clearly in a complete sentence, there's no use searching for a single word. – John Lawler Jan 16 '13 at 21:29
Borrow 'san-san-go-go' – it's bound to catch on. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 16 '13 at 23:47

When a group of people who are all meant to be in one place arrive in small groups over a period of time, the common description is "in twos and threes". I wonder if Japanese groups really are larger on average?

The term dribs and drabs is also sometimes applied to people moving in and/or out of a space.

An Australianism that is typically applied to the movement of a large group of children is like Brown's cows to convey the apparently pointless meandering of small groups that will eventually result in everyone arriving at the designated place.

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It can also be said that "small knots (bunches, parties) of people trickled (straggled, meandered) in"

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