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"SpaceX and OneWeb, a communications firm, plan to launch satellites in their thousands, not hundreds." What does it mean by "in their thousands"?

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There are two ways to describe multitudes - in their hundreds/thousands/millions or by the hundreds/thousands/millions.

I can't find a precise distinction between the two idioms, but some examples are:

Londoners came out on the streets in their thousands https://www.macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/british/in-their-hundreds-thousands-millions

When the potato famine hit Ireland, the Irish began emigrating by the thousand https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/by+the+thousand

UPDATE: One user pointed out that in the thousands is also acceptable and widely used.

  • Thank you for the observation, I will modify the text of the answer. – microenzo Dec 18 '18 at 10:26
  • But in the thousands works perfectly well, too, although (Googling) in their thousands seems more common for this sense. – Peter Shor Dec 18 '18 at 10:27
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"In their thousands" means simply that the quantity is several thousands, not specifying exactly how many.

in their hundreds/thousands/millions
used for saying how many people or things do something, without being exact
Londoners came out on the streets in their thousands.

— Macmillan Dictionary


Some examples from Google Books:

When, therefore, hundreds of thousands of the dead were restored to life, and flocked to the city in their thousands, how could the Jews have let go such an opportunity?

It was therefore resolved, as the only alternative, to arouse the people, Essex fondly imagining that his voice, if he called upon them, would bring them in their thousands and tens of thousands to support his cause.

This was the time when action should have been taken: a military operation was needed to protect the Tutsi, sheltering in their thousands in well identified places such as churches, hospitals and stadia.

The breadth of their appeal lay in their ability to reflect the aspirations of their time, as much as of their own people, and to speak in their own terms, both to the Urdu readers in their thousands and to educated elites of the cities

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    Quotes must be cited in plain text. I've added one: please do the others. – Andrew Leach Dec 18 '18 at 10:36
  • @AndrewLeach No clue what you're talking about. – michael.hor257k Dec 18 '18 at 10:37
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    How to reference material written by others: merely providing a link isn't enough, because links can disappear. The source must appear in plain text. Your second set of examples doesn't even include links. – Andrew Leach Dec 18 '18 at 10:41
  • @AndrewLeach No links are necessary, because these are examples, not references. To include the links would take an awful lot of time which I don't have. – michael.hor257k Dec 18 '18 at 10:44
  • Note that these examples all refer to human beings. – already puzzled Dec 21 '18 at 13:34
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I assume they mean they will launch a lot more.

I would have said, "... by the thousands.."

Edit about "in": I think they are mixing the numerical range form in the -quantity- with the more literary groupings form by the -quantity-

The temperature was in the hundreds.

They sold by the hundreds.

That form usually is applied to a person's range of age: "The couple was married in their fifties." So maybe they mean they will only launch very old objects? That seems unlikely.

Sometimes the in their form is used in a poetic sense: "It was a clear night, the stars were out in their thousands." At that point the numerical meaning of thousands becomes some relative term like a whole lot.

That's why I said I think they mean a lot more.

  • Why use "in" here? Is there usage in the dictionary? – Lexinton Ave Dec 18 '18 at 9:30
  • Please note, the system has flagged your answer for deletion as "low-quality because of its length and content." An answer on this site is expected to be authoritative, detailed, and explain why it is correct. I suggest you edit your answer - for example, including an authoritative reference showing why "by" is better than "in". For further guidance, see How to Answer and take the EL&U Tour :-) – Chappo Dec 18 '18 at 9:33
  • I see no problem with the sentence as it is. There are 170k results in Google Books for "in their thousands". – michael.hor257k Dec 18 '18 at 10:12
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This is a question about the future age of the company (They are in their 100s/1000s). It is similar to the sentences about human age: 'He is his 30s. She is her 30s. They are in their 30s.'

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