I had an exam today (Egyptian GSEC english exam) and in a passage about library it said:

The book slipped from his hands and fell on the floor with loud noise, 20 eyes looked at him and his face turned red.....

It then asked: approximately,how many persons where at the library?

Ten or twenty or forty

But I would like to know if twenty eyes represent 10 persons or is it like a metaphor and represents 20 persons?

Is this expression even correct?

Edit : in the passage it was obvious that it is a normal library with normal people i just cut a part out of its context that serves the question

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    Your question is a good one, but the original passage is to laugh at. That is not an idiomatic way of saying "20 people" or even "10 people". Indeed, we don't even know if they were people! They could be a bunch of studious cyclopes. Or it could be a mixed crowd of seven people and six cyclopes.
    – TimR
    Jun 8, 2017 at 19:19
  • They were definitely people i just cut a part of the passage i will edit the question to make this obvious Jun 8, 2017 at 19:21
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    Yeah i think so too. It is more of a puzzle or an iq question. Jun 8, 2017 at 19:29
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    @Tᴚoɯɐuo I think this is on-topic here though - it's a question from an English exam, and we've tackled poorly written test questions before. We can write an answer that explains that there is no knowledge of grammar or idiomatic English that would lead to a definitive answer. I do think that the fact it is a question on an exam intended for EFL students (I assume) lets us make some guesses as to what answer the test makers are looking for. (eyes versus pairs of eyes)
    – ColleenV
    Jun 8, 2017 at 19:59
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    @user3169 I would to know if 20 eyes represent 10 persons or is it like a metaphor and represents 20 persons? Is this expression even correct? I've closed three other questions as exact dupes of this one, so I think there's some interest in an answer. We read between the lines all the time for questions, I'm not sure why we should close this one. It's a terrible test question, but unfortunately, bad test questions are a "practical problem encountered when learning English". It seems clear from the context it's about whether "eyes" means "pairs of eyes" or eyeballs.
    – ColleenV
    Jun 9, 2017 at 3:59

2 Answers 2


No, it literally means 20 eyes, or 20 eyeballs – not 20 pairs of eyes. However, it's impossible to answer this question unless you assume

  • that everyone at the library looked up at him,
  • that everyone had two eyes, and
  • that all of them were people (= persons).

Presuming all of the above, there were 11 people at the library in total that I count. This is still an approximation because the initial "20 eyes" sounds like an estimate in the original sentence merely by virtue of twenty being a round number.

To address your comment:

Rounding can be a form of estimation. 11 rounded to the nearest ten is 10, which would be a valid answer when asked for an approximation.

  • This is even another fall for the question as there wasn't any 11 or even 21 in the choices. Thank you for your answer. Jun 8, 2017 at 11:58
  • Ok however, what do you think of the question itself is something like this suitable for an english exam? Jun 8, 2017 at 12:07
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    @magedrifaat This isn't my area of expertise. By my lights, it's on okay question that helps asses reading comprehension. It expects you to carefully read both the given sentence and the question.
    – user3395
    Jun 8, 2017 at 12:17
  • Good point. My only complaint here is that the hard parts of the exam were from outside our curriculum and this is not usual Jun 8, 2017 at 13:26

"20 eyes" must mean 10 people if we make the natural assumption that we are talking about typical human beings, and not Cyclopes or other creatures with non-standard anatomy. This isn't really a common type of expression, but as far as I know this is the only way that a native English speaker would interpret it.

You may be confused because the singular word "eye" is sometimes used to refer to a person's general capacity of vision, in expressions like "visible to the naked eye" or "The human eye is very sensitive to light". But the word "eye" is not actually ever used to mean "pair of eyes". It is just has a generic meaning in these expressions because we aren't focusing on describing the number of eyes.

Whenever "eyes" are counted, the implicit unit is a single eye. If we talked about the eyes of 20 people, we would say "20 pairs of eyes" or "40 eyes".

  • "all eyes" and "every eye" or "a dozen|hundred|six pairs of eyes" are idiomatic. But "20 eyes" is a hoot.
    – TimR
    Jun 9, 2017 at 10:23

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