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I'm a native English speaker, and my whole life I've felt like when people say 'some' plus a number, there is some implication that the number is big or surprising, but I can't find any mention of this in any definition anywhere. Still, I can't shake that feeling.

For example, on the bbc website today:

"Prof John Edmunds said cases were now "increasing exponentially". Some 2,948 UK cases were recorded on Monday, according to government data."

If 'some' just means approximately, why would someone say 'some 2,948' cases? Surely if you were going to give an approximation, you would say 'some 2,950' or 'some 3000'?

I feel like 'some' is used like this quite often. "They were expecting a handful of people to show up, but in the end there was a crowd of some 400 people".

Maybe it's just that there tends to be a correlation between the times when you would use an approximation and the times when there is an unexpectedly large number, but I feel like there's more than that, an actual implication in the word 'some'.

Can anyone help? Thanks!

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    This is a personal opinion given as a comment rather than an answer, but I have always taken "some' + NUMBER to indicate either an approximation or a degree of uncertainty. What this means for "some 2948 cases" is that the best available evidence says that there were 2948 cases but that it is recognised that this number, although precise, might not be entirely accurate. For example there might be cases that have not yet been reported. A statement that a charitable appeal had "raised some £1324.27" would mean that the amount received and counted was £1324.27 but more might be coming in. – BoldBen Sep 8 '20 at 6:33
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If you look at the dictionary definition of 'some', it seems the word has a variety of meanings and almost behaves as a contronym.

  1. an unspecified amount or number of.
    "I made some money running errands"
  2. used to refer to someone or something that is unknown or unspecified.
    "I was talking to some journalist the other day"
  3. (used with a number) approximately.
    "some thirty different languages are spoken"
  4. (pronounced stressing ‘some’) a considerable amount or number of.
    "he went to some trouble"
  5. (pronounced stressing ‘some’) at least a small amount or number of.
    "he liked some music but generally wasn't musical"
  6. (pronounced stressing ‘some’) expressing admiration of something notable.
    "that was some goal"
    • used ironically to express disapproval or disbelief.
      "Mr Power gave his stock reply. Some help!"

This answer is a bit of a "because the dictionary says so" which is boring - the dictionary only says so because people say so.

You can search the British National Corpus for some _mc* which searches for 'some', followed by a cardinal number, and find that this usage is quite common in a variety of contexts.

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  • Interesting - thank you. Though in your bolded definition, there is no mention of a number, 'some' is attached directly to the noun to imply a considerable amount - 'some trouble'. Does that also extend to 'some' + number + noun as in my example? I would have thought that would fall under definition 3 in your list, ie meaning 'approximately' with no implication of large size. Perhaps there has been a recent conflation of (3) and (4)? – Bruce Sep 8 '20 at 6:10
  • See the latest edit about the BNC. It seems like the usage is for a remarkable but vague number (always some followed by a round number like 'some 20,000'). Even smaller numbers are in a remarkable context ('some twenty years earlier...') – marcellothearcane Sep 8 '20 at 6:18
  • Thank you @marcellothearcane, very interesting and I wasn't aware of the BNC. Is there something on the site that tags the context as 'remarkable' or is it your interpretation that the context is remarkable? If the latter, I'm still curious as to whether this is actually implied by the word 'some' or if it's just that it tends to be in unusual/remarkable contexts that one is forced to use an approximation, rather than using an exact figure in more familiar contexts. – Bruce Sep 8 '20 at 6:49

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