1: beside one another with bodies in line <columns of men five abreast>
[M-W's Col. Dic.]

What would be the difference between the meaning of the following phrases? I couldn't make any sense out of first one.
1: columns of men five abreast
2: columns of five men abreast
Perhaps you've heard the expression "rank and file." In a parade, the ranks go across, the files go deep. A file is a column. If there are columns of men five abreast, then there are five columns. Each column might be 100 men deep (or 100 men long), making 500 men altogether.

- A.
Hi Jackson

To me, a "column of men" suggests a line of men -- i.e. one in front of the other (not side by side). Thus:

1: columns of men five abreast = The columns consist of (long) lines of men, and there are 5 columns

2: columns of five men abreast = This seems to mean that the columns consist of 5 men (i.e. the each column is 5 men long) and the men are standing side by side.

Others may view this differently, but that's my take.
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Yankee(i.e. the each column is 5 men long)
It's a crazy thing. "Abreast" definitely means "side by side" and "columns" definintely means one behind the other. I just can't think of an analogy. I think "columns" is used in two ways in the same expression. There were scads of men (in columns), five abreast.

- A. (It's been a long time.)
Hi Avangi

I know what abreast means. I guess it basically boils down to the fact that I simply don't like the wording in sentence 2 very much, and that is probably mainly because of the way the words are grouped. Saying "columns of five men" makes me think that each column contains five men, one behind the other. Throwing the word "abreast" in after that wording just seems confusing.
It is confusing, but I look at it as an unspecified number of columns, with each of them containing five men walking side by side (abreast).
Think of it as a military parade, with several columns of men, each column containing five men abreast or like several columns of a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet with each cell within each column containing 5 items representing the men in the example. Whew! I think I confused myself!
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Hi james,

<an unspecified number of columns, with each of them containing five men walking side by side (abreast).> Wouldn't they have to be walking sideways? I think "rank," "file" and "column" imply the way the men are facing, while "line" and "row" do not. "Please form a line," and "I finally got all my ducks in a row" allows the individuals to face either way. If I say "Please line up single file," it's understood that each individual will face the one in front of him. If I say, "please form a column and enter the cafeteria," if they form the column abreast of each other they won't make it through the door (unless they walk sideways).

Best wishes, - A.