English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

When somebody says "this will take me about an hour" or "I ran about four miles", is there an unstated assumption that the actual quantity (time or distance, respectively) will be less than the one specified?

I tend to say, for example, "I ran about four miles" if I actually ran a little less than four miles. But I say "I ran a bit more than four miles" if I actually ran a little more than four miles. Is this distinction unnecessary, and can I use "about" for both meanings?

share|improve this question
About generally implies only an approximation, plus or minus. It does not state if sth. is slightly less or slightly more. Compare: almost, nearly, quite etc., that suggest less than; around that is similar to about; as much as, more or less and similar other terms. At least clearly indicates not less than. – Kris Dec 26 '11 at 5:41
You probably say you ran "a bit more than four miles" because you want credit for the extra distance; you say "about four miles" when you didn't run quite that far but want credit for the skipped distance nonetheless. We're really quite good at (often unconsciously) using language to stroke our egos. – onomatomaniak Dec 26 '11 at 10:34
up vote 6 down vote accepted

About (definition 3) simply describes it as near, close to. You can use it for exactly that; so long as the actual value is near four miles, it doesn't matter if it is under or over. About can be used for both.

If you want to be more specific, say I ran a little over or a little under four miles. If you want to be really specific, give an actual numerical value: I ran 4.2 miles. (Note: the last option is not entirely practical.)

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.