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I was recently asked for a rough estimate on how long a small project will take. I figured it would be a couple weeks, most likely a bit less, but could also be a bit more depending on a few unknowns, so I said "It will probably be about 2 weeks, give or take a few days, most likely give."

I think I naturally went with "give" because it sounds more positive and less time on the project is better. But this logic doesn't hold up in situations where more time is better, like "I'm going to DisneyLand for 2 weeks, give or take a few days."

So which is it? Is the project giving time back? Or am I giving more time to the project?

Is the vacation taking more time? Or would you be giving it more time?

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    If you have to ask us for clarification, then maybe the client will also be confused?
    – Cascabel
    Mar 2 at 18:01
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    Give or take equates directly to add or subtract, were it not already an idiom. As an idiom, it takes on a life of its own and give itself over to no direct translation. That's why languages rely on them: they produce a bigger picture than the words alone. Mar 2 at 18:27
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    @Cascabel For context, this was with a tight knit, internal team. I actually raised this question with them right after I said it, and subsequently derailed the whole meeting for a bit! We couldn't figure it out, which ultimately led me here :)
    – WillRoss1
    Mar 2 at 18:40
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    I like Cascabel's answer below. "Give or take"; "plus or minus", "more or less", etc. are fixed phrases that indicate a margin of error - no more than that. Your meeting was indeed derailed as you all went off on a wild-goose chase. Given the general understanding of the phrases either of the latter contrasting words "more likely, take/minus/less" can be used (NB comma) as they will be understood although only "less" would be idiomatic without the context.
    – Greybeard
    Mar 2 at 19:30
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    @EdwinAshworth I'll take that as a complement, give or take. Mar 2 at 20:35
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"give or take"

is a fixed (set) phrase that means...

approximately

Cambridge on-line defines it as ...

possibly a little more or less than the amount or time mentioned:

a little more or a little less compared to the amount mentioned

It is an idiom that indicates a range; trying to parse it is possibly a waste of time.

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    This is all that needs said about it.
    – Anton
    Mar 3 at 7:59
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    I have changed the accepted answer to this because it objectively addresses the idiomatic nature and classification of the phrase. Since it is non-literal, any literal analysis is inherently subjective, no matter how reasonable.
    – WillRoss1
    Mar 3 at 15:41
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The general understanding is probably ambiguous, but I would parse it this way:
If the thing being modified by "give or take" is the time required for the project, then if I'm giving time to the project, it would take longer. If I'm taking time from the project it would be completed earlier.
Likewise with the time allocated for the vacation, I would be given a few more days or a few days would be taken from the vacation time.
Given how easy it is to misconstrue contracts and the conflicts that can arise, I would just be very explicit: "The project will take between 12 and 16 days" or "The project will be completed on or before March 31."

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  • Great explanation! That makes perfect sense. For context, this was an loose estimate given to a tight knit, internal team, just to give some idea of what we were looking at, so the ambiguity wasn't a big deal in this particular case. I'm really glad you brought up more formal estimates though! Definitely better to steer clear of the ambiguity entirely.
    – WillRoss1
    Mar 2 at 18:49
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    But what about 'There were twenty sheep in the field, give or take'? As Yosef says above, metaphors resist strict analysis, and especially rather whimsical ones such as this one. Why not 'take more time (from my supply)'? Mar 2 at 19:40
  • I see your point . . . more or less
    – gorlux
    Mar 3 at 17:54
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You don't have to enter into these considerations; this is so because "give or take" is an idiom that applies to any evaluation.

(OALD) give or take (something)
​if something is correct give or take a particular amount, it is approximately correct It'll take about three weeks, give or take a day or so.

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