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In "Cambridge preparation to TOEFL"'93 book I've found the phrase:

_ untold number of people perished while attempting to cross Death Valley.

The correct answer is "an". But I have that feeling that "the untold number" = "the specific number, i.e. 12345 that was not told". So the article should or could be "the".

If there is any difference, tell me the British version of this.

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  • If the exact number is not given but instead such a vague phrase as "untold" is used, an is the correct determiner. You go with what is stated. If they had stated the exact number, then yes the 12345 people perished... would be correct. – Alan Carmack Nov 11 '16 at 19:38
  • This is like an unspecified number of people... It doesn't matter if the number could be specified. What matters is that it isn't, and you choose your determiner based on what is actually given, not what it might stand for. – Alan Carmack Nov 11 '16 at 19:44
  • The problem here is that not some vague "untold number" was not told, but the specific precise number that was not told. – outmind Nov 11 '16 at 19:49
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    If the speaker knows that the actual number of people is 12345, he could theoretically say the untold number or the unspecified number if for some reason he wanted to keep the exact number secret, as in playing Dungeons & Dragons: you meet an untold number of dragons, the untold number of dragons follows you into the next cave. But this is not exactly everyday usage, where an untold number is used because it's not important or not possible to specify the untold number. – Alan Carmack Nov 11 '16 at 20:03
  • Or even if the speaker doesn't know the exact number, he can say the untold number of people/dragons, but it's rather unusual. And it would be subject to the same norm that upon first mention, an untold number would almost always be used. Contra wise, even if the speaker knows that the exact number is 12345, he doesn't have to say the untold number. It's up to the speaker as to whether he wants to make a definite or indefinite reference. The idiomatic way is to say an untold number because no one knows the exact number. – Alan Carmack Nov 11 '16 at 20:13
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An untold number is not, as you think, a number which has not been reported. Tell in this phrase retains its old meaning of count, and untold means, literally, countless. An untold number is therefore an undetermined number, one which is by definition indefinite.

(And if this meaning of tell seems unlikely, consider German Zahl, "number" and erzählen, "narrate"; the related words toll, as in death toll, and tale, as in the tale of years; and the same transfer of meaning in the Romance-rooted count, as in recount an experience and your account of events.)

  • Thanks, StoneyB. Alan Carmack's explanation is nice as well. While yours seems much deeper. – outmind Nov 11 '16 at 21:01
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    The Online Etymology Dictionary gives some origins as well. Apparently an old meaning of "tell" in English is "count." etymonline.com/index.php?term=untold – Katherine Lockwood Nov 11 '16 at 23:45
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    @KatherineLockwood I think I said this in my second sentence . . . – StoneyB Nov 12 '16 at 11:38

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