“Percy's been acting very oddly this summer,” said George, frowning. “And he has been sending a lot of letters and spending a load of time shut up in his room… I mean, there's only so many times you can polish a prefect badge… You're driving too far west, Fred,” he added, pointing at a compass on the dashboard. Fred twiddled the steering wheel.

The thing I don't quite understand from that sentence:

What does "only so many times" convey exactly? Is it saying Percy didn't get many chances to polish a prefect badge?

-- Excerpted from Harry Potter.

  • 1
    Possible duplicate of There's vs There are Oct 24, 2018 at 11:45
  • You're only supposed to ask one question per post. For your second question, the answer is Yes. An utterance such as There's only so many ways to skin a cat means there are a limited number (=not very many) ways to do the action specified. Oct 24, 2018 at 11:47
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    @RubioRic: <sigh> The answer is Yes - What Dan thinks (that Percy didn't get many chances to polish a prefect badge) is correct. This idiomatic usage can easily be found in dictionaries - only so much/many: used to say that there are limits to something. Oct 24, 2018 at 12:07
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    @RubioRic: Oh, sorry. Looking at the context again I see that Dan has slightly misunderstood exactly what is being defined as "limited" here. Presumably no-one's actually preventing Percy from polishing his badge, so we can't really say he "doesn't get many chances". It's just that after doing it some relatively small number of times, Percy will find that "badge-polishing" loses its novelty value (it will no longer relieve his boredom, make him feel important, or whatever). Oct 24, 2018 at 12:32
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    @RubioRic: No - you're right. I was only thinking of the meaning of the idiomatic construction only so many times [one can do something], and didn't bother to check whether Dan's "restatement" was accurate as regards the precise detail of what was being described as "limited". Oct 24, 2018 at 12:44

1 Answer 1


The phrase "only so much/many" means there's a limit to what follows. In this context, George is commenting on how much time Percy is spending alone, and also making a joke about his stuffy attitude; Percy could, in George's opinion, amuse himself for a long time just by polishing his prefect badge, but even that can't account for it all, because even Percy would lose interest eventually - there's "only so many times" he can polish it.

  • I haven't read out all those implications! Thank you very much!
    – dan
    Oct 24, 2018 at 12:25
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    Is polishing a euphemism perhaps? Oct 24, 2018 at 12:34
  • @Tᴚoɯɐuo XD We are talking about Harry Potter books here. George is prefect and got an actual badge that he keeps shiny.
    – RubioRic
    Oct 24, 2018 at 12:40
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    @RubioRic: Haven't read the books, but I've seen the movies. Isn't George one of the twins, and rather irreverent? Oct 24, 2018 at 14:07
  • @Tᴚoɯɐuo I get your point. Maybe you're right there.
    – RubioRic
    Oct 24, 2018 at 14:10

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