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I noticed when answering this related question that I would never say a bigger number of. I have no issues with 5 is a bigger number than 3 (though I would probably say a larger or greater number instead), but a bigger number of people than expected sounds just plain wrong. I also don't seem to be alone in this:

NGRam comparing bigger, greater and larger number of

It was suggested to me in chat that this might be because bigger and number of have different registers and they sound incongruous together. I am not quite convinced of that though, neither seems particularly associated with any specific register.

What is different about that particular construction? Why are a larger/greater number of and a bigger number than fine yet a bigger number of not? Also, am I imagining this? At least one native speaker active on this site seems to disagree, am I alone in my distaste?

  • When you say "neither seems particularly associated with any specific register", that is a simplification. Register a very broad term involving a long continuum. When we speak of register, we normally do not mean a specific register that has a name, but just vague degrees of an association with this kind of context or that. And I think it stands to reason that big is to some degree less formal than average, and the construction a number of is slightly more formal. Cf. I went to the beach with a number of buddies: this sounds off to me, and the reason is clear. – Cerberus Nov 19 '14 at 0:12
  • I'm not saying I am 100% sure the registric discrepancy is the main cause of our discomfort in your example, but I am saying you haven't properly dismissed it yet. As for the comparative bigger, I think that is a red herring: a big number of has the same issue. – Cerberus Nov 19 '14 at 0:14
  • @Cerberus yes, big is, or can be, slightly less formal than number of. I was not trying to dismiss it, that's a valid point. The more I think about it the more I agree that it is certainly contributing. I'm just not yet convinced that this discrepancy in register is enough to explain why a big/bigger number of sound so wrong to me. For example I have a suspicion it might be because _big implies physical size more than magnitude but phrases like a big problem would seem to belie that. – terdon Nov 19 '14 at 0:25
  • Right, I am not sure either. And you are right about a big problem, and a big number. Cf. also a big majority (a similar registric discrepancy, or just acceptable?), a big win (both informal), a big discrepancy (there should be a similar registric gap, and yet this sounds fine to me). So perhaps it's several factors combined? – Cerberus Nov 19 '14 at 0:33
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    I think the phenomenon exists ("a bigger number of people" sounds weird). There's a reason, I'm sure of it. For a second I thought maybe because bigger is more connected with continuous volume or height, and number is not continuous and not a volume. But "a bigger number of" doesn't preclude that usage. Slim explanation but maybe it is a hint. – Mitch Nov 19 '14 at 2:12
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I think someone on Mathematics would be able to answer this question best; mathematicians never say bigger number. I cannot put my finger on it either but to say that, colloquially, bigger is a psychical size; larger is a quantity.

What follows is basically a cut and paste from englishforums.com -user Terr3
(I'm not sure how great this can possibly be considering all the grammar and spelling mistakes I cleaned up):

When we say "slightly higher register", we are referring to the social context in which we use the words -- not the meaning of the words. If you speak with the president of a country you will probably use "high register", for example.


-A large amount of light has penetrated through tree leaves.
-A great amount of light has penetrated through tree leaves.

Concluding that 'large' and 'great' are interchangeable but not 'big' when it comes to indicating math or quantity.

-A big success (correct)
-A large success (wrong)
-A great success (correct)

Concluding that 'great' and 'big' could be interchangeable when objective has no physical scale.

-It's no big deal (correct)
-It's no great deal (wrong)
-It's no large deal (wrong)
-He has suffered a great deal of stress(correct)
-He has suffered a large deal of stress(wrong)
-He has suffered a big deal of stress (wrong)

Concluding that since 'deal' is a unit without physical scale, 'great' and 'big' are interchangeable, except for the case of 'big deal'. I think 'big deal' is a jest of incorrect grammar to highlight the sarcastic tone.

-He is a big guy (correct)
-He is a great guy (correct but yielded a different meaning) Concluding that 'great' can only have an equal meaning to 'big' when it comes to quantity, outside of that the meaning is 'good' instead.

Also concluding that 'large' and 'big' are interchangeable at any object with a physical size.

Being a native speaker I've never had to consider it in such detail, so I think we may have to accept this provisionally. There always seem to be counterexamples in English.

  • Interestingly, register was unbeknownst to me and was not one of my search terms. After typing "bigger number" bigger number or larger number was suggested to me by Google. Apparently we are not alone seeking this knowledge and the Magic Inter8ball says "Try again later". – Mazura Nov 19 '14 at 3:13
  • Thanks, but my question is focused on bigger number of and not bigger number alone. In any case, your quote is about big number which is not really relevant. Also, I mention the difference in register in the question and state that I'm not entirely convinced that is enough. Can you provide any more evidence for it as an explanation? I am also not at all sure that mathematicians don't use big number. Authors from other fields certainly seem to. – terdon Nov 19 '14 at 3:58
  • @terdon "large number"=127 results vs 71 on SE. On Google it's 30k vs 5m. The thing that I might not be putting my finger on is the repressed memory of my math teachers berating me for using this word in the classroom. My point is it's not the of; it's the use of the word number. Searching "become [larger\bigger]" yields 10 to 1 in favor of bigger. Searching "numbers become [larger\bigger]" yields 10 to 1 in favor of larger. Register smegister; colloquially. I wouldn't say it's high register to use larger number but it's low brow to say bigger number. – Mazura Nov 19 '14 at 4:21
  • I know, that's what prompted the question. What I'm wondering about is why. I think it comes down to your first point about physical size, or perhaps what Mitch mentioned about continuity. As for the of, it is relevant. 5 is a bigger number than 3 is far less jarring than there was a bigger number of people than expected and that is what I find intriguing. Perhaps because one is actually describing the number's "size" as opposed to the amount of people. – terdon Nov 19 '14 at 4:32
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I think the distaste for "a bigger number of" has less to do with bigger + number of than with big + number. Consider this update of your chart to compare "a big number" (blue line), "a great number" (red line), and "a large number" (green line):

And the same matchup with the indefinite articles eliminated yields almost identical results:

Like "bigger number of," "big number" flatlines in comparison to the alternative wordings, although "great number" does worse against "large number" than "greater number of" does against "larger number of."

I don't have an explanation for why "big number" is so little used (relatively speaking) in published writing. Maybe it's just an idiomatic predilection in English, or maybe there is some longstanding editorial hostility to "big number" that drives usage in written (or at least published) English toward "great number" and (especially) "large number" instead.

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    However, big number is still very widely used and, as Terdon says, does not sound as odd as a big(ger) number of x. Cf. books.google.com/ngrams/… So I don't think those relative frequencies tell us much about this specific case. – Cerberus Nov 19 '14 at 0:08
  • I agree that in speech "big number" does sound normal—and yet in edited writing it's on the floor against "great number" and "large number." That suggests to me that there may be hidden "informal diction" prejudice at work against "big number" in written work. I would be shocked if "big number" did similarly poorly in the context of speech. I'll try to make that clearer in my (edited) answer. – Sven Yargs Nov 19 '14 at 0:27
  • Well, yes, big number is less formal and hence less likely to appear in print than large number or great number, especially in academic articles and books. So that shouldn't come as a surprise, it tells us little. In general, I would be very careful before drawing any conclusions from Ngrams, especially without thoroughly examining the Google Books results themselves. – Cerberus Nov 19 '14 at 0:36

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