"an estimated 20,000 people have been..."

Hi all GE members and moderators,

I read the following sentence in an article on CNN website about the earthquake in Indonesia.

"In total, an estimated 20,000 people have been displaced by the massive earthquake, Nugroho said."

I also found the similar pattern from Webster Advanced Learner's Dictionary: "An estimated 50,000 people were in attendance."

I don't understand this structure much. Why is "an" used before the plural noun "people" and the verb is plural.

Please enlighten me.

Many thanks

Original Post
tonyck 2 posted:
"An estimated 50,000 people were in attendance."

I don't understand this structure much. Why is "an" used before the plural noun "people" and the verb is plural.

Hello, Tony,

Great question. I analyze this as an abbreviated way of speaking which is commonly motivated by the adjective "estimated," and I view it as a journalistic locution. Newspapers, as you know, commonly try to economize on words.

The full construction must, I believe, be said to be something like this: "An estimated total of 50,000 people were in attendance." The words "total of" are understood in the abbreviated construction you have asked about.

They need not, however, go unexpressed. The sentence with "total of" could have been used instead. As evidence of the understood words, consider that "estimated" does not actually modify "people." People aren't estimated.

I welcome comments from my colleagues or other members on this.

Personally, I've always felt that it is the phrase "number of" that is implicit there and that, this being the case, the mentioned phrase needs to be omitted to avoid redundancy -- what else can "50,000" be but a number? 

Surfing the Internet, I have found in this grammar log that "an estimated" may be considered to be acting as an adverb, similar to "approximately," which does make sense, doesn't it?:

 

QUESTION
This is my problem sentence:
According to the news, there were an estimated 100 people trapped in the building at the time of the fire.
Can you please explain to me how "were an estimated 100 people" works? How is it that "were" and "100 people" are plural, but "an" is singular? Do all of the modifiers modify "people" or do they each modify something different?
SOURCE OF QUESTION & DATE OF RESPONSE
Tokyo, Japan  Fri, Oct 27, 2000
GRAMMAR'S RESPONSE
[E-Mail Icon]Is this an example of a participle — "estimated" — behaving like an adverb, modifying the number "100" this case? Or is the entire phrase "an estimated 100" acting as an adjectival phrase?

This is in line with the possible paraphrasing of some similar adjectival phrases, many of which appear in business English:

a) A mere 30 flights have arrived at the airport this summer. (Merely 30 flights...)
 
b) A record five presidents took office in Argentina between December 20, 2001 and January 2, 2002 (the fact that there were five presidents in such a short period of time was a record).

c) The temperature increased an incredible 100 degrees during the eruption (the total was incredible).

d) Country risk has dropped a massive 250 points (the total is massive).

e) The new shareholder has contributed a modest 100,000 dollars ('modest' refers to the total contribution).

We also have the cases of "a further" and "another" used with plural noun phrases, which along with the specimens above have always baffled me (and my students) with their high idiomaticity.
 
Gustavo, Contributor posted:

Personally, I've always felt that it is the phrase "number of" that is implicit there and that, this being the case, the mentioned phrase needs to be omitted to avoid redundancy -- what else can "50,000" be but a number?

We view it similarly. When I spoke of the "full construction," I used the phrase "something like this," because I don't think that it's a case of recoverable syntactic ellipsis. It's the idea that is understood, and the idea can be clothed in a number of different words: "total of," "number of," "quantity of." Your selection does have the benefit, as you point out, of creating redundancy and thereby motivating deletion. Mine can actually be uttered: "an estimated (total of) 50,000 people."

Gustavo, Contributor posted:

Surfing the Internet, I have found in this grammar log that "an estimated" may be considered to be acting as an adverb, similar to "approximately," which does make sense, doesn't it?

That's an interesting take. I do note the hesitancy. The author is speculating, just as we are. That "claim" is actually a question, and it is followed by the honest, humble confession "I really don't know."

I think the other, related constructions you've brought up, Gustavo, are excellent. We are clearly dealing with a broad pattern with number phrases, not an isolated oddity that only shows up with the adjective or participle "estimated."

Before reading your post, I had just been considering that very point, though I hadn't come up with so big a list. The adjectives or participles that I was considering were "whopping" and "staggering":

  • A staggering 10,000 people were at the beach.

The adjectives and adjectival participles that work in this construction tend, it seems to me, to be ones that pertain to emotional reaction or merely, as with "estimated," to human subjectivity.

I may try to see if there is any information about this in one of the extra-comprehensive grammar tomes in my library. I sense a close family resemblance here to what we see in sentences like "I spent a wonderful four years there."

Perhaps a more distant family resemblance (at the cousin level, not the sibling level) may be said to exist with what we sometimes find with noncount nouns. Here are a few Stephen Crane quotes from The Red Badge of Courage:

  • "By the time the depleted regiment had again reached the first open space they were receiving a fast and merciless fire." (i.e. gun-fire)
  • "The youth in this contemplation was smitten with a large astonishment."
  • "Still, they saw no hesitation in each other's faces, and they nodded a mute and unprotesting assent when a shaggy man near them said in a meek voice: 'We'll git swallowed.'"
David, Moderator posted:

We view it similarly. When I spoke of the "full construction," I used the phrase "something like this," because I don't think that it's a case of recoverable syntactic ellipsis. It's the idea that is understood, and the idea can be clothed in a number of different words: "total of," "number of," "quantity of." 

I totally agree (I particularly like the "non-recoverable syntactic ellipsis" explanation). Actually, I explained my sentences (c) and (d) by saying "the total was incredible / is massive," and the "elided" noun in my sentence (e) is "amount/quantity of," not "number of."

David, Moderator posted:
 

The adjectives and adjectival participles that work in this construction tend, it seems to me, to be ones that pertain to emotional reaction or merely, as with "estimated," to human subjectivity.

Definitely.

It seems to me that the use of the singular article is the mechanism the language has come up wih to enable adjectives to modify numbers. Actually, we could do without the noun that follows and the sentence would still be correct:

A. How much did he contribute?

B. A modest 10,000 (dollars). (*Modest 10,000 (dolllars) would be ungrammatical.)

And we shouldn't forget the determiner "some," which combines both functions (article + adjective), being similar to "an estimated":

B'. Some 10,000 (dollars).

I also liked your examples. Looking up "whopping" in the Longman dictionary, I found this example where the noun forms part of the fractional number, which once again proves -- as I see it -- that the adjective (whopping in this case) modifies the number itself:

Another popular adjective that can be used with this pattern we have discovered is "average":

- He eats an average 10 pounds of pasta per week.

Finally, I also see the resemblance you mention to those constructions with noncount nouns where "type of" seems to be elided in the first and third sentences.

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