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I have a sentence as follows:

You may need as many as five commands to draw a simple triangle when using the basic layer.

My question is:

Is the phrase "as many as" crucial ? Will the meaning change if I remove it from the sentence?

Does the phrase mean "at most"?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 11 down vote accepted

I believe it means "at most," with an emphasis being that the number is undesirably large.

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"Up to..." means the same, but without this emphasis. –  Steve Melnikoff Dec 7 '10 at 17:35
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@Tsuyoshi Ito: your understanding of this phrase appears flawed. "As many as five" means that, ok, so sometimes you can do it with 3 commands, or even a single command in the right circumstances, but there are certain significant situations where it takes 5 friggin' commands do to this simple task. The range of possible values is 1 to 5, and the statement is remarking on the fact that 5 is way too high. –  Marthaª Dec 7 '10 at 22:17
    
@Martha: It seems to me that you are conflating the meaning conveyed by “as many as” and the meaning conveyed by “may” in the quotation. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Dec 7 '10 at 22:22
    
@Tsuyoshi Ito: eh? Exactly how do you believe "may" alters the meaning of "as many as"? –  Marthaª Dec 7 '10 at 22:31
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@Tsuyoshi Ito: as @Dusty just demonstrated, your understanding of "as many as" is incorrect. It does not mean equal, but less than or equal to this large number. –  Marthaª Dec 7 '10 at 22:51

If your intention is to convey how much effort it takes to draw a simple triangle, there's no better phrase than "as many as".

However, if you want to imply how short & straightforward the task is, then you may use:

You need no more than five commands to draw a simple triangle when using the basic layer.

As answered by Claudiu & Steve, "at most" is valid in the second case and "up to" is valid in both cases.

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I do not think it always means no more than. The usual usage is that the quantity stated would be high against the average and an estimated high-water mark, not an absolute. –  Orbling Dec 7 '10 at 20:41

Added: As Martha and Dusty pointed out, the usage explained in this answer seems to be either incorrect or at best uncommon (thank you for your patience, Martha and Dusty).


The phrase “as many as five” refers to five things with an emphasis on how large the number is. It does not mean “at most five” (= “five or fewer”).

The opposite of “as many as five” is “as few as five.” While it also refers to five things, it has an emphasis on how small the number is, and has the same meaning as “only five.” I think that “as few as five,” “only five” and “no more than five” (as in crypto’s answer) mean almost the same things.

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"As few as five" means that 5 is the lower extreme of the possible range of values. "No more than five" means that 5 is the upper extreme. So no, they don't mean almost the same thing at all. –  Marthaª Dec 7 '10 at 21:44
    
@Martha: Interesting. I do not think that I have ever seen “as few as five” meaning that five is a lower bound. As I wrote in this answer, the phrases “as many as five” and “as few as five” both refer to five, no more, no less. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Dec 7 '10 at 21:55
    
I second Martha's comment. For example, "They survived on as few as 3 eggs a week" would mean that some weeks they only had 3, but other weeks they had more. "as few as" and "as many as" set bounds, not strict equalities. –  Dusty Dec 7 '10 at 22:06
    
@Dusty: Thank you for the explanation (and for the other reply on my comment on Claudiu’s answer). While I admit that “as many/few as” sometimes refers to an upper/lower bound, I still think that it is not always the case, and I defend my answer as in the case of this question, the phrase can be interpreted in both ways. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Dec 7 '10 at 23:21

The phrase "as many as" expresses a lower limit, but not a specific quantity within the range. Without any qualifying phrase in addition to it, such as "at most" or "but not more than", the phrase indicates amounts equal to or greater than the stated quantity. For example, if I were to say, "I have as many as five coins in my pocket," if I had only four coins, the statement would be false. If, however, I had five or more coins, the statement's parameters would be met.

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Er...I don't think that's quite right; if I have as many as five coins in my pocket, I have not more than five coins. If I had five or more coins, I'd have at least five coins... –  Brian Hooper May 31 '11 at 21:18

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