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TWTS: Don't count on "countless" to be literal

Grammarians sometimes worry about whether you can count the things to which a noun refers.

And no, we're not talking about "less" and "fewer."

Today we're talking about "countless." A listener named Paul wrote to us and asked, "When did 'countless' start to be used to refer to groups bigger than, say, a dozen?"

On a similar note, Tony wrote to us and asked, "I don't know about using 'dozens' if you only have two dozen? Do you need to have more than that?"

What we're talking about here is language used hyperbolically. If you're using "dozens" to refer to what's actually only twenty-something things, you're probably exaggerating.

We have a long history of exaggerating in English, particularly with the words "hundreds" and "thousands." You might say, "I have hundreds of questions," when in actuality you have six or seven. However, you're trying to make the case that you're really interested in whatever is being discussed and have a good number of questions.

That's not to say things don't get confusing sometimes. If you heard a newscaster say, "Dozens of people attended the rally,” about how many would you assume were there? If 24 people attended, does that count as "dozens," since that would technically more than one dozen? What about 36?

Honestly, we could spend a lot of time arguing about this one. For many of us, there does seem to be a connotation that "dozens" means more than 24. However, this could be another situation where someone is exaggerating.

That could also be the case with "countless." This word is now often used to mean "a lot" as opposed to "infinite" or "unable to be counted."

Mark Memmott, NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards and Practices, has written about "countless" in terms of NPR usage. Memmott says, "It's tempting to say that we've used one word a countless number of times. But that would be wrong because we can quantify it." Over the course of one year, Memmott found that "countless" showed up 255 times on NPR.org and 112 times in broadcast transcripts.

Point taken. However, English Professor Anne Curzan says there are times when "countless" can be helpful. For example, she says she might use "countless" when talking about how many times people have asked her to talk about how people use "like."

"Could we count how many times I've been asked about 'like'? In some world we could, but my memory isn't good enough to remember all of the times people have asked me about it. I'm trying to say it's a lot. I can't actually count it, but it isn't infinite," Curzan says.

In short, there's a time to be precise, and there's a time not to be precise. Do you have any rules for yourself about when to use "countless" and "dozens"?

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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