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I've always understood the adjective -odd used in combination to mean about, as in "She read 300-odd pages and then stopped." After reading a comment by Edwin Ashworth in another question ("And doesn't even OED only define 600 000-odd words?") I looked up the definition of -odd and was surprised to find that definitions differ:

I. More than the number indicated

(a)

Somewhat more than the indicated approximate quantity, extent, or degree —usually used in combination 300-odd pages m-w

(b)

(In combination) Used to designate an indefinite quantity more than the quantity specified in round numbers: fifty-odd pounds. Collins (print)

(c)

With a relatively small number over that specified (usually in hyphenated compounds) twenty-odd children. Webster's New World Dictionary

(d)

Additional to a whole mentioned in round numbers, or to any other specified whole: following and when it takes the place of a unit appended to a ten.

A fortnight and odd days. Shak., R and J, i.3.15.

Eighty-odd years of sorrow have I seen. Shak. Rich. III. iv.1.96. The Century Dictionary

(e)
Edwin pointed out the curious take on this in the AHD:

Being in excess of the indicated or approximate number, extent, or degree. Often used in combination: invited 30-odd guests.

Webster's II New College Dictionary, also published by Houghton Mifflin, has an almost identical definition.

(Would you really use odd with a number that was not an approximation, e.g., "There were 123-odd books fitting the description"?)

(f)

The expression + odd refers to a relatively small amount over that specified; e.g. 300 odd means 'slightly over 300' D. Biber, S. Johansson, and G. Leech; Grammar of Spoken and Written English

(g)
And, for good measure, a textbook published by Routlege:

Let's look at some more sentences and see how the hyphen changes the meaning of the sentence.

  1. (Thirty odd) students tried out for the play.

We can say "thirty odd" students, which denotes that those thirty students are peculiar.
Or we can say "thirty-odd" students, which means 30+ students.
D. Crovitz and M. Devereaux; More Grammar to Get Things Done (2020)


II. Approximately the number indicated

(a)

Immediately following the numeral (usually one that denotes multiples of ten) forming a phrase preceding the noun modified. Now often in weakened use (frequently hyphenated): ‘or so’; ‘or thereabouts’ (OED)

Examining the OED's citations for this sense (1597–1995), I find it impossible to tell which of the more recent ones fall under the parent definition

More generally: used to denote a remainder or numerical surplus over and above a ‘round number’ (as a multiple of ten or a similar unit such as dozen, etc.)

and which were intended by the author as "about."

(b)

You use odd after a number to indicate that it is only approximate.
[informal]

How many pages was it, 500 odd?

He has now appeared in sixty odd films. Collins online

(I would always keep the hyphen; we've all seen some very odd films.)

(c)

Used after a number, especially a number that can be divided by ten, to show that the exact number is not known:

I'd say Robert's about 40-odd - maybe 45. Cambridge

The most common ways of giving an approximate number are as follows:
...
[informal] She's got twenty-odd cats.
Cambridge International Dictionary of English, p.58 (1995)

(d)

Note the following informal ways of indicating approximate numbers:

some eight people [some unstressed]
80-odd people [but not *85-odd people]
80 people or so/thereabouts
80 or so people
a good eighty people ['at least 80']

(R. Quirk et al.; A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, p. 395)

These five alternatives are bracketed with ['about eight'] alongside. Note that "80-odd people" is not qualified with ['at least 80'].

(e)

Approximation is also expressed by certain grammatically distinct constructions, as in [thirty or so] students (coordination) or [thirty-odd] students (affixation).

(Huddlestone and Pullum; The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, p.431)

(f)

The hyphen is important in phrases such as twenty-odd people (= roughly twenty), to make it clear that we are talking about roughly twenty people, not a score of eccentrics. H. Fowler and J. Butterfield; Fowler's Concise Dictionary of Modern English Usage (2016)

(g)

More or less: sixty-odd dollars. Random House Dictionary

(h)

You use odd after a number to make it sound vague or approximate: She must be 50 odd by now. □ We received 500 odd replies. Harrap's Essential English Dictionary, p.640 (1966)

(i)

Hyphen can distinguish constructions such as ...30-odd professors (around 30 professors) and 30 odd professors (a convocation of eccentric educators). Lisa McLendon; The Perfect English Grammar Workbook, p.170 (2017)


III. Either more than or approximately the number indicated

(a)

[In combination] In the region of or somewhat more than a particular number or quantity. Lexico

(b)

[Postpositive] [In combination] In the region of or somewhat more than a particular number or quantity: She looked younger than her 50-odd years. Oxford New American Dictionary

(c)
From Sheila Dooley and Ferdinand de Haan; "On the nature of the approximative expression NUM-odd*" in William D. Lewis et al. (eds.) Time and Again: Theoretical Perspectives on Formal Linguistics (2009), which I found after posting my question:

...
It originated from the use of odd to denote a surplus or remainder, which usage has existed for several hundred years
...
Given that Terry Langendon taught at the University of Arizona from 1988 until 2005 (i.e. seventeen years), it is tempting to use the numeral twenty with an approximative measure, as in (1):

(1)
a. Terry taught at the University of Arizona for twenty or so years.
b. Terry taught at the University of Arizona for some twenty years.
c. Terry taught at the University of Arizona for twenty-odd years.

Although (1a) and (b) are perfectly fine, there is a problem with (1c): it seems unnatural to use the expression NUM-odd when referring to a number below NUM. The present paper is a study of the NUM-odd expression.

This expression may seem like a very infrequent type of phrase in contemporary English, but a corpus study shows that this is an illusion.
...
It is probably still the case that NUM-odd when combined with lower level numbers (the 'tens') expresses a range with NUM as the lower limit, especially when combined with nouns such as year (the prototypical instance). However, at higher levels, such as two thousand-odd the NUM-odd construction is turning into a true approximative and can be used in the sense 'about'.


How would you know when -odd is being used to mean somewhat more than the number indicated, and what does that actually mean, since an approximate number may have been rounded up or down (or do some folks still always round down)?

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  • 16
    With a round number (30, 250, 4000), it means 'and change', i.e, always over the amount, but not much over, in context. Apr 1 at 16:32
  • 6
    No, I don't think anyone would use 'odd' with a figure that wasn't a round number. Apr 1 at 16:33
  • 5
    Yes, that's what I'm saying. 298 is "about 300" or "almost 300" but not "300-odd". That might be 305-350 or so. The point is that the difference is irrelevant. Apr 1 at 16:49
  • 2
    Sorry, I deleted my comment for @John Lawler. I'm still confused about the definitions that use in the region of, approximately, or so, thereabouts.
    – DjinTonic
    Apr 1 at 16:58
  • 6
    Round-number-odd usually means more than, but it also means less than the next round number up. So 50-odd is less than 60.
    – Neil_UK
    Apr 2 at 8:08

4 Answers 4

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I usually understand odd as being in addition to an amount, rather like a remainder. However, it can also mean an approximation, and there isn't a sure-fire way to tell the two apart.

The sense of odd as additional is deep in the history of the word. For instance, the Oxford English Dictionary gives this for its first definition of odd (adj., n.1., and adv):

  1. Of an individual: that is one in addition to a pair, or to an even number; remaining over after distribution or division into pairs; constituting a unit in excess of an even number.

In other words, an odd number is odd because it is one in excess to an even number. That also explains uses like the odd man out, the one person unpaired in a larger group.

That sense of odd influences the more generic meaning of odd as a remainder or approximate (definitions 3 and 4). Two definitions highlight the potential for polysemy between an additional sense and an approximate sense:

Odd as additional

  1. More generally: used to denote a remainder or numerical surplus over and above a ‘round number’ (as a multiple of ten or a similar unit such as dozen, etc.), and thus becoming virtually an indefinite cardinal number of lower denomination than the round number named.

Odd as approximate

4c. Immediately following the numeral (usually one that denotes multiples of ten) forming a phrase preceding the noun modified. Now often in weakened use (frequently hyphenated): ‘or so’; ‘or thereabouts’.

There's the rub. Under additional usage, 40-odd means 40 plus a smaller number. Under approximate use, 40-odd is 40 or so. There isn't a great way to distinguish between the two, but there are a couple of ideas:

  1. Is it older writing? Odd probably means an addition. For instance, at the time Otto Jespersen wrote part VII of A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles (first published 1954), he only acknowledged odd as a quantifier: "a number is a little higher than that denoted by the numeral."

  2. Is it newer writing? Be less precise in assumption. For instance, the French/English answer book Grammaire Anglaise (Florent Gusdorf) lists the following gloss for hundred-odd: "A hundred-odd people, a hundred or so people." If you don't have insight into how the author uses -odd, don't assume the usage is precisely more than.

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  • 1
    Well argued. You make the case for definitions along the lines of group III.
    – DjinTonic
    Apr 1 at 17:41
  • Think odds and ends.
    – tchrist
    Apr 2 at 13:10
  • Thanks to @tchrist, who always makes the odd comment :-)
    – DjinTonic
    Apr 2 at 13:18
  • It's curious that both major grammars, Quirk and Huddlestone & Pullum, have the approximation-only sense.
    – DjinTonic
    Apr 2 at 13:31
  • 1
    If the "approximately" meaning is becoming more common, perhaps that's in place as well as time. "Plus a few" seems to be primary in the UK, though I don't think you could be accused of lying if your 30-odd guests turned out to be 29. Maybe there's even a suggestion of asymmetric uncertainty: from just under the stated round number to just under the next
    – Chris H
    Apr 4 at 5:55
13

I've only used "-odd" myself and have seen it used by others to mean

With a relatively small indefinite number over that specified (usually in hyphenated compounds) twenty-odd children.

in both speech and print. But I learned its meaning from contextual clues, and it's interesting that the dictionary lists multiple meanings/uses!

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  • 2
    'In the dictionary' would be an unfortunate misappropriation of a generic usage. The whole point here is that different (respectable) dictionaries (and grammars) disagree in what they license based on descriptive principles. Apr 2 at 16:54
  • Note also that "the dictionary" of English doesn't exist (unlike more prescriptive languages), so it's usually wise to state which dictionary you're using as reference for any given answer. Apr 4 at 13:53
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Well, you dug up quite a number of authoritive references supporting either, so the answers will end up more or less a poll.

For what it's worth, I only know 300-odd in the meaning "300 and then some". A similarly colloquial (but probably slighly less formal) way of expressing "about 300" would be 300-ish.

3
  • Was looking to see who mentioned "-ish". Its existence with equally short length makes it completely unnecessary to use "-odd" for approximation (one might be tempted to use "-odd" if the only alternative were "or thereabouts" as suggested in the source Taliesin quoted, a significantly longer turn of phrase)
    – Ben Voigt
    Apr 4 at 16:28
  • @BenVoigt -ish is the highly versatile way to make almost anything approximative, but with so many choices-- some/roughly/about 300 pages; 300 pages, give or take; nearly 300 pages (if under)--why resort to it, given there's no good place to put it: 300 pages-ish?, 300-ish pages? 300 pages, -ish works only as a spoken afterthought.
    – DjinTonic
    Apr 5 at 0:10
  • @DjinTonic: It's 300-ish pages, exactly parallel to 300-odd pages.
    – Ben Voigt
    Apr 5 at 15:15
5

Any time I can think of that I've heard someone use "-odd" this way, it was used with a round number and meant "plus some". Like "500-odd pages" meaning "somewhat more than 500 pages".

If someone said "500-odd pages" and it turned out the actual number was 498, I'd say it was inaccurate to say "500-odd" but not jarringly so. Such an expression is clearly approximately so if you're guessing a little high, no big deal.

I've never heard someone use "-odd" with a non-round number, like "237-odd". I suppose if I heard that I'd take it to mean at least 237 and probably a little more. But it's just not something that people normally say.

I wouldn't be surprised to hear someone use it with some other unit, like "5 dozen-odd". But I don't recall ever hearing that.

In general, if you want to say "about 500", where it might be 10 or 20 or whatever either way, say "about 500". I'd reserve "500-odd" for "more than 500".

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