What's the upper limit on your definition of "several?" Is 6 too many to be "several?" 4? 9?
I asked some friends, and got a really interesting discussion about how we perceive things.
Mallory's answer: "More than a few. Which is more than a couple. And there can never be too many in a several." So, does she then think "several" could mean 20? 100? I'm not convinced.
MPD says: "1= single, 2= couple, 3= few, ?= several and ?= many... 'Several' should be no less than 4 and upwards of 6. 'Several' of anything is not overwhelming like 'many.' 7 and beyond start falling into that category." Definitely a good start.
Greg points out that "it depends on what's being counted. Several beers or several blows to the head...."
Collyn, meanwhile, weighs in with a confident definition: several is 4-6.
Daniel defines it as being more than two but fewer than many; further, he says: "I think 6 is ok to be described as 'several.' I think anything more than 10 can be loads or I GUESS many." He also points out that you can JUST SAY the number. "I had many people over" vs "I had 10 people over?" — "it’s a single-syllable even number!" Hm. Good point. Daniel also gets credit for noting that “craploads” is an actual unit of measurement south of Kansas City.
Erin, like Collyn, is concrete-minded: she places the upper limit of "several" at 9. Mike Brannon agrees that it has to single digits: less than 10.
In my mind, "a couple" is 2. You say "they're such an interesting couple!" and you don't mean that they're a threesome. Though that would be interesting. In general, you say, "I filled up my gas tank only a couple of times in January," and you mean two or maybe
three-but-you-can't-quite-put-your-finger-on-it. (Also, not being able to put your finger on it is a good rule for threesomes.)
I'll also agree with MPD that "a few" is pretty much 3. I'd never say "a few" to mean two. I'd possibly
say "there were only a few people at the restaurant" when there were 5, but no more than that, and I think that's mainly because in a large restaurant 5 customers seems small. I'd say "she had a few drinks" and mean three or, maybe, four. But 3 is the main number in my mind when using "few."
For "several," I'll agree with Erin and Mike that single digits are the upper limit. Maybe, maybe
10. I'd never use it to mean upwards of 10. And I personally would never use it to mean anything lower than 5 or 6. The main number in my mind for "several" is 7, possibly because they sound similar.
If you say "there are several candies left in the bag," I'll picture anywhere from 6 to (maybe) 10. I would never picture 3. That's "a few." Maybe, maybe 5. If you say "there are several people in the restaurant," or "I filled up my gas tank several times last week," I'll always picture right around 7, and possibly 9 or 10, and maybe 6 or 5.
I've heard people use "several" to mean 3 or 4, which puzzles me. Just not right, is it?
MPD agreed with others that "real life usage makes a difference. If my assistant told me, 'The store buyers ordered quite a few
styles, in many
colors and would like several
sizes,' this would be relative to the size of the store (boutique? chain store?) and of the collection as to what 'few,' 'several,' and 'many' could mean."
Rick, scientific mind that he has, breaks it down thus: "Single (1), couple or pair or brace (2), few (3), bunch or group (5), several (7), crowd (9), dozen (12). Many seems to have no upper limit." Brace! Extra points for brace!
One interesting thing about all this is that, historically, humans don't conceptualize numbers more than about 3 or 4 too well. Even in our advanced civilization, we have methods for making large numbers fall into small chunks so we can understand them.
Just about anywhere you go in the world, among primitive peoples, their numbering system is 1, 2, many; or possibly 1, 2, 3, many. That's it. They just don't count further than about 3. There's something hardwired in the human brain that makes that happen. We have all sorts of tools for expanding that, but those tools are like the ones we use for computers, which really, as you know, only understand two numbers, 0 and 1.
Take a look at our writing systems: China has a single line for "one," two lines for "two," three lines for "three," ... and a symbol for "four" and above. Suddenly the tallying has to become a concept rather than a visual number.
Same with Arabic numerals: a single line for "one," two lines rendered in a sort of cursive for "two," three cursive lines for "three," ... and a symbol for "four" and above.
Roman numerals are a bit more advanced, but basically the same: one line for "one," two lines for "two," three lines for "three," four lines for "four," ... and a symbol for "five" and above. (The use of "IV" for "four" doesn't show up until they appear on modern clocks.)
So, there's something going on there, right? There's some information we can use about the human brain, encoded into our very thoughts about numbers.