‘Behind us in the caves of the Deep are three parts of the folk of Westfold, old and young, children and women,’ said Gamling. ‘But great store of food, and many beasts and their fodder, have also been gathered there.’

JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Volume 2: “The Two Towers”, Book Three, Chapter VII, “Helm’s Deep”

By three parts, Gamling means “three parts of four”, or “three quarters”. Or, at least, so I assume. Why do I assume that? It’s an assumption built in so deeply that I have no idea where it comes from. Is it a correct assumption? How long has the assumption that everything has four parts (or, rather, that a part means a quarter) been around? And is it still safe to use language that way today?

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    I have never heard such an assumption. All Gaul, for example, is divided into only three parts, not four. :-) I think that if you are counting parts in this sense, how many slices of the whole, you must specify the total number for it to make sense. Of course it's quite meaningful to talk about parts with no relationship to a percentage of the total. If I say, "I replaced three parts in my car today", that says nothing about what percentage of the car was replaced. It is very unlikely that it was 75%.
    – Jay
    Nov 28 '12 at 21:19
  • @Jay. The point is that neither Gamling nor Tolkien ever give any indication of the number of parts, so it must be implicit. And I automatically (from somewhere) inferred four. Is that a safe assumption?
    – TRiG
    Nov 28 '12 at 21:22
  • One assumption I can imagine is that you read "quarts" for "parts" subconciously. Otherwise, since you say you got it from "somewhere", are you sure the book doesn't mention "somewhere" how many parts the folk are divided in?
    – Mr Lister
    Nov 28 '12 at 21:30
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    @TRiG: I have heard of such a usage. Both Alexandre Dumas ("My dear fellow," replied Danglars, "you are three parts drunk ...") and Bertrand Russell (''To fear love is to fear life, and those who fear life are already three parts dead.'') use the expression idiomatically. Nov 28 '12 at 22:58
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    But popular usage can foist different meanings onto words. A baker's dozen is accepted as not meaning 12. 'Three parts' can either mean 3 out of a specified or unspecified total number of portions, or 3/4 (often used loosely for almost or largely). Nov 29 '12 at 19:50

It's not that the word part has any direct connection with quarter. Tolkien's usage is just a variant on the same trope that gives us...

possession is nine parts/points/tenths of the law

If Tolkien had written "four parts of the folk" (unlikely, I know), it would have meant four fifths. Once you specify how many parts you have, the implication is there's one more unaccounted for.

But I do think three is a good number for these contexts - three quarters is a familiar fraction, two is too small for any expression emphasising scale, and four fifths is getting complicated. We're much more likely to say three parts drunk or three sheets to the wind, rather than four or five.

  • Oh. Yes. Duh. I feel a bit silly now.
    – TRiG
    Nov 28 '12 at 21:45
  • @TRiG: Well, it's far from obvious unless you see it! I'm pretty sure I'm right (that explanation works for me, anyway!), but I'm probably stretching things a bit to call it a "trope", since I can't think of any similar constructions using numbers other than three (of four) and nine (of ten). Nov 28 '12 at 21:51
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    ...but here's kindness is ninety-nine parts of what passes for wisdom to back me up! Nov 28 '12 at 22:01
  • The way I read it is that a certain specified group is three parts and then there's another group specified. One would assume they're the last quarter as nothing else is said about this fraction. Three quarters is also a good idiom or whatever you call it for something that is substantial, a good round number majority.
    – Chris
    Nov 29 '12 at 2:48
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    @Fortiter: I don't assert that "n parts" always represents any particular fraction of the whole. What I'm saying is that if "n" is greater than 2, and no other parts are specified, there is a standard "trope" based on the principle that the number of additional unspecified parts is in fact one. So in the unlikely event the recipe said to mix an unspecified amount of milk with "three parts flour", you could reasonably assume it meant "with one part milk". Nov 29 '12 at 13:33

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