Should the word be used for things we can actually count?

McKay Stangler e-mails: ‘‘I was curious about your thoughts on the modern usage of ‘countless.’ The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as ‘that cannot be counted’; in other words, too many of something to count. I’ve noticed, however, that it has very nearly become a synonym for ‘many’ or ‘numerous.’ Do you have a sense of how and when the word started adopting this newly evolved meaning?’’

Countless falls into a family of adjectives that, when taken literally, imply an infinitude but in practice refer more loosely to a vast number. Others in this family include incalculable, immeasurable, inestimable, limitless and measureless. Even infinite gets used in this hyperbolic fashion, and has since the age of Chaucer. (Think of Hamlet’s line: ‘‘What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason? How infinite in faculty?’’)

As for countless, its traditional use has been for quantities that are, if not strictly uncountable, at least too immense to allow for easy enumeration. A 1916 dictionary of similes supplies some typical literary examples to fill the slot in the phrase ‘‘as countless as ___’’: stars in the sky, grains of sand in the desert, motes of dust in a sunbeam, drops of water in the ocean. Thus, canonically countless items are natural objects that are so profuse that they defy human attempts to number them.

Has the sense of countless been weakening in recent years? Anecdotal evidence might suggest so. Stangler provides a few examples of usage from a week of New York Times coverage that he finds questionable. On Cuba: ‘‘Workers were being laid off in countless industries, from hospitals to hotels.’’ In an obituary of a voiceover actor: ‘‘As the narrator of countless movie trailers (his wife estimated he did 3,000), Mr. Gilmore was an especially effective pitchman.’’ In an article about community farming: ‘‘Even without the community agriculture program, there is tree pruning all winter and countless other tasks.’’

In all three cases, the nitpickiest among the Times readership could find grounds for complaint. If we set our minds to it, we probably could count all the industries in Cuba, the trailers narrated by Mr. Gilmore or the tasks on a community farm. But these things would not be easy to count, and that is generally what countless now implies. (The first sentence is guilty of a graver journalistic transgression: ‘‘from hospitals to hotels’’ is a false range generally scorned by copy editors.)

Though I haven’t found any complaints about the exaggerated use of countless in any of the standard usage guides, the writer David Foster Wallace, a well-known stickler on grammatical matters, seems to have been attuned to the word’s overextension. In a short story called ‘‘My Appearance”’ he tells of an actress going on David Letterman’s late-night talk show. Letterman mentions her ‘‘three quality television series’’ and ‘‘countless guest-appearances on other programs.’’ The actress replies matter-of-factly, ‘‘A hundred and eight.’’ Letterman corrects himself with ‘‘virtually countless guest-credits.’’ A hedging word like virtually, nearly or almost can help to tone down the hype of countless. Or why not mix it up with another adjective like myriad or multitudinous? The possibilities are limitless (well, not quite).

Ben Zimmer, New York Times


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