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How are we to understand the following sentence as being grammatical? If it isn't, why should we excuse it's not being so?

For thirteen years she had been a schoolmistress, and during those years she had gone into town for her salary time without number.

  • Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich, and Cathy Popkin. “In the Cart.” In Anton Chekhovs Selected Stories: Texts of the Stories, Comparison of Translations, Life and Letters, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.

According to the Farlex dictionary of idioms, 'without number' means "So numerous as to be uncountable." For example: "The varieties of wordplay available in English are almost without number."

What is without number here is 'varieties', which is plural. This makes sense and is reflected in all other examples I've found of 'without number'.

The problem with Chekhov's translated story is that 'without number' is modifying 'time', which is singular.

If indeed incorrect, how are we to tolerate ungrammaticality in a work of prose?

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    Times without number is certainly the usual expression. Maybe this is just a misprint. Apr 10 '20 at 7:57
  • A Google search will find it going back to at least the 1950s. I suspect it's one of those errors that people make from time to time. Apr 10 '20 at 11:20
  • @KateBunting I believe time without number is idiomatic - though why it is I'm not clear. Similarly I would accept she paid him visit without number. It is just one of those oddities like fifty ton of strawberries!
    – WS2
    Apr 10 '20 at 14:31
  • This is a Norton Critical Editions publication. A google search brought me to another version of the story published by Oxford containing the same expression. Therefore, I strongly doubt this is due to authorial error or a misprint.
    – Pound Hash
    Apr 10 '20 at 14:38
  • 2
    Idioms are defined as acceptable strings showing some irregularity in the sense of a word, or in grammar, or both. This is an extragrammatical idiom. 'Time without number' is an accepted variant of the non-idiom fixed expression 'times without number', though the latter is gaining the upper hand just at the moment according to Google 3-grams Apr 10 '20 at 16:53
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Here the word time refers to the occasion of her going into town. It is in the more abstract sense and is neither plural nor singular.

It could just as well be; "She had gone into town for her salary, occasion without number."

Looking for correct definition and saw this. “Time” versus “Times”: When is time plural?

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    If this were so, time's being uncountable doesn't much explain the problematic usage. For why would we say of something uncountable that it is 'without number'? If we can't count something, then of necessity that thing will be without number. It's not merely that we're talking about something that may or may not have any number, in which case the usage seems warranted, by that we're talking about something that logically is incapable of having number. Therefore, the usage isn't merely silly or superfluous, but absurd.
    – Pound Hash
    Apr 10 '20 at 14:52
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I believe the phrase may be idiomatic to describe that she had done it so many times that one could not recall a count without having kept track.

Similar phrasing might be to say, “She went to town...

  • as usual, and indistinguishable from the other times.

To further explain, take a simple activity that you do everyday, for examples sake “brushing one’s teeth”.

If one is in the habit of brushing their teeth regularly and in the same way, the experience becomes ubiquitous. One may eventually experience that all they can picture is that period of time brushing your teeth, but not the unique individual and differentiated times and dates when you have done it. It just becomes ”time brushing your teeth”, rather than “the 921,131st time you are brushing your teeth.”

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The answer was essentially provided as a comment by @Edwin Ashworth. After reviewing his answer and doing some reading, I will reiterate and expand a bit upon what he said.

The expression 'time without number' is an extragrammatical idiom. It is this idiomaticness that renders the expression permissible. Such idioms are defined by the linguist William Croft in his book Cognitive Linguistics as:

Idioms that cannot be parsed by the general syntactic rules for the language.

  • Croft, William, and David A. Cruse. Cognitive Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012.

He gives the following examples: [first off, sight unseen, all of a sudden, by and large, so far so good].

As to why certain expressions qua idioms are permissible, this seems to be due simply to the fact that enough people have used an incorrect expression enough times that the incorrectness has been rendered correct.

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'Idiom' , as the term implies, is often beyond the justification of grammaticality ; and so I think, the expression " time without number ", just being an informal variant of the fixed and formal expression "times without number", is artistically correct as well as happily acceptable under the prestigious category ' extragrammatical idiom'.

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  • What exactly does this add to what has already been posted on this page?
    – jsw29
    Jul 5 '20 at 20:01
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The OED in its entry for "time" has at P5a:

(b) Chiefly poetic and literary. In the fuller form many a time and oft (also often) (and variants).

c1300 (▸?c1225) King Horn (Cambr.) (1901) 1070 (MED) Horn bad vndo softe Mani tyme & ofte; Ne miȝte he awynne Þat he come þerinne.

1446 in L. Morsbach Mittelengl. Originalurkunden (1923) 34 (MED) Y herd my seyd mastyr sey in hys good lyve..mony tymes and ofte, that he neuere seled dede..to the seyd john Rope.

1996 ‘J. le Carré’ Tailor of Panama (1997) iii. 39 No suit should be worn two days running... As I'm sure your good father will have told you many a time and oft.

It is worth noting the singular in the earliest quote.

P5e. times without number: on countless occasions; very frequently.

1658 T. Pierce ᾽Εαυτοντιμωρούμενος: Self-revenger To Rdr. sig. *** Times without number he calls me proud and insolent.

[…]

2000 Econ. & Polit. Weekly 16 Dec. 4457/1 This farce has been played out times without number at the national level and in individual states.

And then there is the Google Ngram for Time and again,times and again,time without number,times without number

In which you will note that “time and again” is more frequent than “times and again” but that “times without number" is more frequent than “time without number”.

So, how are we to understand “I told her time and again not to touch it”?   “I told her again not to touch it” is clear enough – “again” is an adverb.

“I told her time not to touch it”... This is incomprehensible if “time” is a noun… but not if it is considered an adverb = on occasions or on an occasion.

Then we have

OED

P2. With a following adverb.

|b. Originally U.S. time and again (also time and time again, (now less commonly) times and again): repeatedly; on many occasions; very often.

It is obviously an adverb.

1821 Jrnl. Deb. & Proc. Convent. to revise Constit. Mass. 48/2 Application was made, time and again, relative to the College.

2009 C. Ackerley in W. Van Mierlo Textual Scholarship & Material Bk. 109 Time and again she had to make difficult decisions about disputed words and phrasing.

Here “on occasion and occasion again” fits well.

And then we have:

c. time(s) and oft (also often): = many a time and oft at Phrases 5a(b). Now rare.

1791 W. Taylor tr. G. E. Lessing Nathan the Wise (1805) iii. 130 And have not I too said so, times and oft.

1798 Musical Banquet 122 Time and oft, dress'd lamb fashion, I zeed an old ewe.

1972 P. M. Fraser Ptolemaic Alexandria I. x. 658 A floating islet..which sailors from the Cyclades and the Saronic Gulf saw time and oft in the waters of the northern Aegean.

in which we again see an earlier plural use.

And here we have the answer:

Despite Google Ngrams, time can be understood either as an adverb "on an occasion" or as many a time and “many a time” = many times and is adverbial.

You also asked

How are we to understand the following sentence as being grammatical? If it isn't, why should we excuse it's not being so? [...] If indeed incorrect, how are we to tolerate ungrammaticality in a work of prose?

We do this by realising that the person has not been born who speaks and writes any language 100% correctly, 100% of the time. We realise that we all make mistakes.

Of course, the pedant in us all may rail against such egregious faults that are clearly a sign of a lower intellect than ours, but then we must congratulate ourselves on seeing the error and thus satisfied, eagerly anticipate finding the next.

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