Here is an admittedly morbid passage from Max Hasting’s excellent book Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945.

Italy lost over 300,000 military dead, and around a quarter of a million civilians. More than 5 million Poles died, 110,000 in combat, most of the remainder in German concentration camps, though the Russians could also claim a substantial tally of Polish victims. France lost 567,000 people, including 267,000 civilians. Thirty thousand British troops perished in conflict with the Japanese, many of them as prisoners, out of an overall death toll of 380,700. Britain’s total war loss, including civilians, was 449,000. Indian forces fighting under British command lost 87,000 dead. Total United States war losses were 418,500, slightly fewer than those of the United Kingdom, of which the U.S. Army lost 43,000 in Europe and the Mediterranean and 55,145 in the Pacific. The U.S. Navy lost a further 29,263 men in the East, the Marine Corps 19,163. It is inconsistent to account the estimated 20 million people who died of starvation and disease under Axis occupation as victims of Germany and Japan, without making the same computation on the Allied side: between 1 and 3 million Indians under British rule perished in wartime famines.

Hastings is a careful historian, and frequently mentions conflicting estimates, or figures that are likely to be biased, and that sort of thing. This paragraph comes toward the end of history of World War Two, as he sums up the losses of some of the major and minor players. I found the paragraph interesting because of the implied precision of some of his figures.

  • “over 300,000”
  • “around a quarter of a million”
  • “more than 5 million”
  • “110,000”
  • “567,000 people, including 267,000 civilians”
  • “thirty thousand”
  • “380,700”
  • “449,000”
  • “87,000”
  • “418,500”
  • “43,000 in Europe and the Mediterranean and 55,145 in the Pacific”
  • “29,263”
  • “19,163”
  • “estimated 20 million”
  • “between 1 and 3 million”

The numbers cited are interesting because they are all presented in the same paragraph, and yet carry quite distinct evidentiality modifiers. Some are qualified as estimates, but there are as many that I interpret as implicit estimate, because I know that Hastings knows (that I know that Hastings knows)* that people rarely die in groups of 1,000, so when he uses a round figure I assume him to be providing an estimate.

  • Explicitly qualified
    • “over 300,000”
    • “around a quarter of a million”
    • “more than 5 million”
    • “estimated 20 million”
    • “between 1 and 3 million”
  • Unqualified
    • Implicitly qualified (i.e., round numbers)
      • “110,000”
      • “567,000 people, including 267,000 civilians”
      • “thirty thousand” (i.e., 30,000; the numeral is avoided, I believe, to avoid beginning a sentence with a numeral)
      • “380,700”
      • “449,000”
      • “87,000”
      • “418,500”
    • Pure unqualified
      • “29,263”
      • “19,163”
      • “43,000 in Europe and the Mediterranean and 55,145 in the Pacific”

Of these, the only really odd case is the last in list, where 43,000 die in the Europe and Mediterranean, but 55,145 in the Pacific; these numbers are placed together, but seem to carry different precisions. (Is is suspicious that the Pacific number is a multiple of five?)

There’s not much of a broader point to be made here. It’s a rather straightforward instance of pragmatics influencing precision. The author (perhaps without thinking of it?) uses round figures without qualification, knowing that the reader will cooperate by recognizing his degree of precision. As reader, I take certain figures more seriously than others: if 110,001 Poles died in combat, I have no beef with Hastings, but if the U.S. Navy lost 29,264 men, then he made a mistake. (That example, drawn quite at random, nevertheless sums up some of the political sentiments of the war…)  I find it interesting that this happens not just in informal speech, but in a book that presents itself as a serious and reliable history.