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Definitions of "a number of":

  1. Collins Dictionary at https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/a-number-of

    an unspecified number of; several or many

  2. Merriam-Webster at https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/a%20number%20of

    more than two but fewer than many : several

  3. Oxford at https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/academic/number1?q=number

    several people or things; some

According to Collins Dictionary, the phrase could possibly mean two or many -10 or even more for instance- while Merriam-Webster excludes both two and many.

What number would you imagine from the phrase "a number of"? Would it be somewhere around

  1. two to five,
  2. six to nine, or
  3. more than 10

It would probably depend on the context, but I feel that the phrase is often used in an ambiguous context like the below one.

On November 26th, a number of NSO Group's workers filed a lawsuit against Facebook, claiming that the social-media giant has unfairly blocked their private accounts. https://www.economist.com/business/2019/12/12/offering-software-for-snooping-to-governments-is-a-booming-business

How many workers approximately do you guess filed a lawsuit against Facebook?

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"A number of" deliberately means "an unspecified number". Usually you can infer the order of magnitude from the context (for example, it's unlikely that millions of scientists sued Facebook at once), and it usually doesn't indicate a large number (majority) in that context, but there's no way to put a specific value to it.

"A number of employees" can be anywhere between two to hundreds. "A number of voters" can mean hundreds of thousands of them. "A number of bacteria" can be billions.

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  • Thanks. Your answer really helps me have some image about the phrase, but to me numbers like hundreds, hundreds of thousands, and billions are nearly equal to "many", in which case the definition given by Merriam-Webster, "fewer than many" sounds a little inappropriate. – Takashi Jul 21 '20 at 10:29
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    @Takashi Many is context-dependent as well - in a country like the US 100,000 voters isn't many compared to the overall number of eligible voters. – Maciej Stachowski Jul 21 '20 at 10:31
  • That makes sense! All clear now. Thanks a lot! – Takashi Jul 21 '20 at 10:36
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I would assume that the number is worse than the user of the phrase wants you to think it is.

The only reason for writing something this vague is because you're intentionally being deceptive. If you don't know what the actual number is, or that it's a number that's in flux (still changing) you should state that.

For instance, if I saw "A number of people complained about ...", if the person saying this was opposed to the thing that was being complained about, I would assume it's two people. If it were said by someone who is in support of the thing, I'd assume it's closer to 50% of the people who were in a position to complain.

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