A research proposal.
There are a great many inexact and colloquial units of measurement used in everyday life by native English speakers. Often they are used in situations where their meaning can only be metaphorical—“a handful of people turned up”, “I have a truckload of work to do next week”, “I was stuck in traffic for an eternity”.
This research project would aim to answer a number of fundamental questions about such inexact measurements:
Are the relative sizes of the measurements universally understood between native English speakers? For example, does everyone have roughly the same idea of how much “a hell of a lot” is, compared to (say) “an obscene amount”?
Do they have a well-ordered ranking? That is, if unit A is generally deemed larger than unit B, and unit B is larger than unit C, is it guaranteed that unit A is generally felt to be larger than unit C?
Is there a definite deep semantic content to inexact quantities, such that they can be understood without conscious reasoning? Is this what gives them their literary expressive power?
The project would be divided into four phases, outlined below.
The initial phase would consist of collecting an extensive list of inexact or colloquial quantitative measures. The principal criterion for inclusion on the list would be that the measurement in question is ill-defined; hence the list could include “miles”, in the sense of “the bus stop is bloody miles away”.
This initial research phase would probably take several months.
Next, the units would be categorized according to their dimensionality. Unlike in exact unit systems, colloquial units can have multiple values for their dimension. For example, a “handful” can be either a dimensionless quantity (“a handful of people showed up”), a unit of currency (“a handful of spare change in my pocket”), a unit of volume (“a handful of rice to throw at the bride and groom”), or a unit of weight (“a handful of potato chips”).
This phase would also be quite time-consuming; it would take a bunch of months. During this time, software development for phase three would begin.
A group of randomly chosen test subjects, all native English speakers, would be asked to answer computer-administered questions, presented via the web in the following form: