16

In my answer to a question on the SF & Fantasy stack, I assumed that "half a dozen" is imprecise enough to mean anywhere from 5 to 7. Another user challenged that assumption and stated that since a dozen is 12, a half dozen is necessarily 6 and nothing else.

In the answer to a similar question, it is said that

Dozen is quite flexible when it is pluralized.

Does half count as a pluralisation? Can "half a dozen" mean anywhere from 5 to 7, or can it only be 6?

  • 12
    For the record, I've never seen any use for the expression "half a dozen" other than it being another way of saying "6" – Richard Feb 6 '15 at 17:31
  • 5
  • 4
    I use it 'flexibly'. How many beers did you have? Hmmm...half a dozen (meaning 7 or more). How many times did you win on the horses? Hmmm...half a dozen (meaning 5 or less). It can be less precise that plain old six. – Frank Feb 6 '15 at 17:46
  • 8
    The popular idiom "six of one, half-dozen of the other" (meaning two options are equivalent) becomes meaningless unless a half dozen is exactly six. – Digital Chris Feb 6 '15 at 20:40
  • 3
    Largely dependent on context (including who's speaking). If someone said, eg, "I saw a half dozen crocuses coming up this morning" it would mean "about 6". "A half dozen eggs," however, should generally be exactly six. – Hot Licks Feb 6 '15 at 21:02
41

The most likely answer is: It Depends.

If I go to the store and buy half a dozen eggs, half a dozen donuts, and half a dozen muffins, I'm going to be extremely annoyed if when I get home I find only 5 eggs, 5 donuts, and 5 muffins in the packages.

On the other hand, if I am complaining about the length of the checkout line, I might say "look at this! half a dozen people waiting and they're not opening a new lane," when in fact there are only 4 people, including myself and the person who's actually being served. I am not doing a precise count, only a quick (and most likely exaggerated for the sake of complaining) estimation.

Similarly, at the party when I ask my friend who is clearly falling-down drunk "How many beers did you have?" and he says "Ummm.. half a dozen?", I will be inclined to think that half a dozen is actually 8 or 9.

So, context is king; if you are in a situation where something is normally expressed as an exact number, then "half a dozen" equals 6. But if you are in a situation where the exact number doesn't necessarily matter or may not be known, then "half a dozen" is "most likely somewhere between 4 and 8".

  • 2
    This is true - though I think it is also a function of the size of the number, rather than a specific trait of the phrase "half dozen". Seems that accuracy decreases as the number increases (in standard conversational English). – Scot Feb 6 '15 at 20:18
  • 2
    @Scot: It's not so much the size of the number as its structure. "Five hundred twelve" probably means exactly 512 (or, if the value is not discrete, then something between 511.5 and 512.5), even though the much smaller "twenty" can be very approximate. "Dozen" is in the latter category. – ruakh Feb 6 '15 at 23:00
  • 6
    -1, These examples don't show that a dozen can be something other than 12. If I said there were "six people in line in front of me" when there were only four, then that would mean that I'm using hyperbole, not that six can also mean four. The drunk friend isn't using 'half a dozen' to mean eight or nine, he's just drunk and incorrect/unsure about the number of drinks. A half-dozen is exactly six. You can use the number six as an estimate when you're unsure of the exact total, that doesn't make 'six' an imprecise measure. – DCShannon Feb 7 '15 at 1:15
  • 5
    @DCShannon But I'm not very likely to say "there are 6 people in front of me" unless that's the actual number. Hellion's point is that that's how the phrase "half a dozen" is often used in practice; "half a dozen" to mean 5 is not necessarily hyperbole, while 6 to mean 5 must be an exaggeration. – cpast Feb 7 '15 at 4:54
  • 2
    I think my normal terminology for an unknown quantity between 4-8 would be "a half dozen or so"; a quantity between 8-15 would be "a dozen or so". Values 15-20 would be "maybe a dozen and a half", and values 20 and up would be "probably dozens", losing the "probably" around 30. Literally speaking, the term "dozens" should only refer to multiples of 12, but it's often used for any quantity over two dozen. – supercat Feb 7 '15 at 22:32
18

Curiously, the OED says:

half-dozen | half-a-dozen

The half of a dozen; six (or about six).

In its quotes, it does not distinguish when it means 6 and when it means ~6.

But for dozen, the OED does not depart from 12.

dozen

A group or set of twelve. Originally as a n., followed by of, but often with ellipsis of of, and thus, in singular = twelve. Also, used colloq. in pl., either indefinitely or hyperbolically, for any moderately large number; cf. hundred n. and adj. 2. (Abbreviated doz.)

The OED gives no example of 'dozen' meaning 'about 12'.

Originally dozen was a noun, and so a dozen of eggs meant twelve eggs not somewhere between 10 and 14.

It does say that dozens can mean a moderately large number, just as hundreds can mean a large number.

This is not to get all prescriptive. People can use words in any manner they want. I'm just saying that a dozen equals twelve and a half dozen is six, or 'around six'.

Edit to add that a dozen dozen equals a gross, which is exactly 144, not around 144 or between, say, 122 and 166.

  • Can't beat the OED. – SQB Feb 7 '15 at 15:45
  • 6
    I've literally never heard 'half a dozen' used approximately without an 'about/around' qualifier before it. – Jon Story Feb 7 '15 at 16:53
  • 3
    I have, but I've also heard "6" used approximately without an "about/around" qualifier. Some people fail to precisely state their own vagueness ;-) – Steve Jessop Feb 8 '15 at 11:19
5

It depends on the context.

If I'm buying eggs from a supermarket then I assume they're selling an exact quantity (i.e. 6).

In that context the reason for saying "a half dozen" is that eggs are traditionally sold by the dozen.


You quoted it being used in the following context:

Story goes, he made thirteen bullets. This hunter used the gun a half dozen times before he disappeared, the gun along with him...

In that context I assume it's imprecise.

If they had wanted to specify any precise number, they could have said, "This hunter used the gun six times...".

In that context the reason for saying "a half dozen" is that it's an (imprecise) estimate.

  • 1
    Except that, in that particular case, it was something of a math test, and for that one assumes precise values unless precisely specified otherwise. Other than that, I agree that a half-dozen or a dozen may not always be precise. – Hot Licks Feb 9 '15 at 0:27
2

A 'dozen' is absolute. It means twelve. No generalities apply.

  • 5
    A dozen is 12. Six is half a dozen. – user97452 Feb 6 '15 at 17:46
  • 2
    If that's a joke or a sarcasm, would you let me in on it? I'm not American, and I rarely get the jokes about the different states without having them explained to me. :P – user97452 Feb 6 '15 at 19:59
  • 2
    Even at the bakery? – SamB Feb 6 '15 at 20:45
  • 3
    @SamB at the bakery a dozen is still twelve and a "baker's dozen" is 13. – Digital Chris Feb 6 '15 at 21:04
  • 3
    Interestingly enough, in French, "une douzaine" means approximately 12, and that's quite useful when we want to speak about a number around 12 (or around 6 for "une demi-douzaine"). I wonder when and why the two languages started to differ. – Blackhole Feb 6 '15 at 22:00
0

A gross is always 144, a score is always 20, a bakers dozen is always 13, a dozen is always 12, and half a dozen is always six, and so on and so forth, but . . .

We do not always use numbers precisely, leaving aside errors (including fencepost errors like the mentioned supermarket line) there are three ways that numbers are used less precisely.

  1. Measuring the count: discrete items can always be counted (I have five magic beans), but sometimes an exact count is not needed (put two and a half cups of beans in cold water and let soak). This leaves you with all the accuracy and precision issues of all measurement. Often you are only concerned with orders of magnitude, less than half a dozen, a little more than a dozen, about a gross, more than I wanted to count, More than I could count.

  2. Symbolic numbers: A classic example is the three wise-men bearing gifts to Christ. There is no count given in the bible about how many there were. we only know fore sure that there was more than one. Most scholars speculate somewhere between six and twenty. So why three? It does make staging a play easier in that each has a unique prop corresponding to each gift, but the main reason is that three is considered a holy number and therefore appropriate for gifts to Christ. Also ponder the seven wonders of the world, top ten lists, and the seven deadly sins.

  3. Place holders: Where a number is needed but the value is not known or does not matter. See also http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/R/random-numbers.html and http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/F/for-values-of.html

-3

As Mauli Davidson said, it is an absolute quantity. However, "dozen" is sometimes generalised. I think it is quite common that people use it flexibly.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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