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My boyfriend and I are arguing whether thousands of miles means 1000+ or 2000+ miles.

The first argument is that 1000+ is over 1000 and therefore 'thousands of miles' by rounding up.

The other argument is that thousands are a unit, and if you only have one unit plus a fraction of that unit it is not 'thousands of miles', it is a thousand miles plus the fraction: therefore only 2000+ is really 'thousands of miles'.

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I don’t think rounding up works when pluralising numbers. Would you (or your boyfriend, whoever forwards the argument) also consider 30 hours to be several days? Or 13 people to be dozens of people? When dealing with such large numbers, the general ‘feel’ of the number seems more important to me than the precise number. I might well say there were thousands of people at a concert even though there were only 1,986 people there; but I wouldn’t say the Song Dynasty (960–1279) was founded thousands of years ago. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 9 '13 at 0:24
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I've been drinking, but may I suggest you find a new boyfriend? –  Michael Owen Sartin Dec 9 '13 at 3:11
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@MichaelOwenSartin - I disagree. If you can't debate etymology with your significant other, there's only so much joy that can come out of the relationship :^) –  J.R. Dec 9 '13 at 9:44
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In my opinion, 0 is a perfectly valid number of thousands to have. –  David Schwartz Dec 9 '13 at 12:23
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Actually, the unit argument works against what it's trying to prove. As one would not say 1.01 kilogram. The singular for a unit is used only when there is exactly 1 of them. Even 0.5 we say kilograms. That being said, thousand is not a unit. It's 1000 units, of whatever those units are. –  Cruncher Dec 9 '13 at 17:58

5 Answers 5

up vote 68 down vote accepted

If your argument was that thousands means 2000+, then you could show your boyfriend the following dictionaries, which define thousands in your favour:

Do not show him the following dictionaries, which define thousands in his favour:

I'd say opinion is well and truly divided.

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Another usage contrasts with the 2000s, 3000s etc (ie 1000 - 1999). But obviously this isn't the OP's usage. –  Edwin Ashworth Dec 9 '13 at 8:55
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@Susan - Of course that's a valid definition of the word thousands, but that's in the context of the phrase in(to) the thousands. "The number of casualties reached into the thousands" could mean 1002, or 1064. However, saying "There were thousands of casualties" may or may not be an equivalent remark, depending on the answer to the O.P.'s question. As a side note, I think Def #4 (a great number or amount) shows how context-dependent this can be – especially when thousands refers to an estimate rather than a known count. –  J.R. Dec 9 '13 at 10:03
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There is a difference between the category of thousands and a quantity of thousands. 1001 is a quantity categorized under thousands. You can't say that Florida is "States", but you could say that Florida is "in the States" or that Florida plus Ohio are "states". Likewise, 1001 is in the thousands, or 2001 is thousands, but 1001 is never thousands. –  nmclean Dec 9 '13 at 16:21
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Calling a milliard a “billion” is American, which means it is not only wrong, but also evil. –  kinokijuf Dec 9 '13 at 20:32
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@kinokijuf That was a very american-like bold unjustified claim of you :). The list of long scale/short scale users(by number of countries, disregarding population) is near-equal according to wikipedia, and looks like a few more for short-scale. –  Cruncher Dec 9 '13 at 20:59

If someone said "I have thousands of dollars" and really they had $1900, then you would say they are a liar or romancer. If they really had $2100, you'd think they are nominally correct, but being somewhat misleading. I'd say it gets to be "thousands" around $3000.

One may even say thousands' meaning up until the next threshold, which would be up to roughly 8 or 9 thousand where one would start to say 'around 10,000', then 'almost 20,000' before one gets to 'tens of thousands'.

This can be generalized (the internal feeling of sense is maintained) to tens, hundreds, etc.

This is not the same as when to use the plural with a number and 'thousand'.

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Yes; pragmatic considerations (how the terms are generally perceived in context) are surely the most important here. This answer is the clearest. There are times when it's silly to argue for the "nominally correct, but somewhat misleading" (ie prescriptivist) answer. And if a 3-year-old said 'I walked thousands of miles last week', I'd interpret differently again. –  Edwin Ashworth Dec 9 '13 at 8:59
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And personally, I don't expect "thousands" to mean more than twenty thousand, either. At that point, you're talking about "tens of thousands", then "hundreds of thousands" etc. –  scottishwildcat Dec 9 '13 at 15:52
    
@scottishwildcat: good point - that is really what this is all about, what are the thresholds for the 'tens', 'hundreds', 'thousands', 'tens of thousands' approximation. –  Mitch Dec 9 '13 at 16:50
    
@EdwinAshworth And in the summer time, it must be a thousand degrees is my house! –  Cruncher Dec 9 '13 at 21:03
    
It feels like you're going for the "one, two, many" system of counting, applied to indeterminate numbers — "one thousand, two thousand, thousands…, ten thousand, twenty thousands, tens of thousands…". I like it :) –  anotherdave Dec 10 '13 at 19:34

Thousands means "greater than one where n = 1000, that is, whole thousands.

You can't take a person standing next to severed foot and 'round up' to two people. You can, however, say a person standing next to a half-torso (plus extremities, etc.) equals one and a half bodies.

One and a half thousand is 1500. Thousands = multiples of "thousand".

Which position was yours, if I may ask?

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Assuming Rachel is the female partner - hers was the winning position of course –  mgb Dec 9 '13 at 1:23
    
I don't understand the relevance of your penultimate line. –  Matt Эллен Dec 9 '13 at 15:18

I would say the plural means n*1000.

Interesting aside. There was a public auction for broadcast rights in the UK where one of the bidders was unopposed but paid £2000. The small print stated that bids had to be multiples of £1000 and their lawyers were worried that a court might argue that £1000 wasn't a multiple of a £1000.

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That's funny, deserving of a click here. –  Jolenealaska Dec 9 '13 at 1:15
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@Susan: The real question is not whether the lawyers studied math, but whether the judges (assuming it did end up in court) did. Anyway, it's just plain old risk management: if the cost of later losing the rights due to a silly court decision was in the millions, then spending an extra £1000 to eliminate even a 0.1% risk of such a decision would be well justified. To a big corporation, £1000 or £2000 is just pocket change, anyway. –  Ilmari Karonen Dec 9 '13 at 16:04
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What about when n < 1? –  mikeTheLiar Dec 9 '13 at 19:23

I remember my math professor explaining the importance of approximations in different contexts:

"For an engineer, pi is a number around 3. For an astronaut, there aren't nearly enough decimals available. For two lovers, pi equals 10. Or any other number."

For you and your boyfriend, thousands should be both more and less than 2000. Why really argue?

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I'm guessing that this "argument" wasn't a heated and contested spat, but a friendly debate instead. If I'm not mistaken, then asking "Why really argue?" is like asking "Why ever voice a contrary opinion?" –  J.R. Dec 9 '13 at 10:09
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@J.R. Well, I do hope this "thousands" story is not a reason for a break up :) and my answer is more about bringing a smile. I do agree that having different opinions is part of a healthy relationship. –  vasile Dec 9 '13 at 10:41
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Actually, a dozen or so digits of pi should be plenty enough for an astronaut, or for pretty much any other practical purpose. Anything past that is just showing off. –  Ilmari Karonen Dec 9 '13 at 16:21

protected by RegDwigнt Dec 9 '13 at 10:28

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