Don’t Be Careless With The Word ‘Countless’

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:

– “Countless” showed up 255 times in the past year on NPR.org.

– The word is in 112 broadcast transcripts from that same period.

There are two points to make about this:

– We (and our guests) use the word too much. We cannot have found that many things that qualify as countless.

– We (and our guests) often misuse the word, either because what we’re talking about can be counted or because a better word would paint a clearer picture. “Countless” just ends up sounding like a throwaway word that conveys little information.

This is the point in this post where we should go the dictionary.┬áThe adjective “countless” is defined as “too many to count; innumerable; myriad.” If you want to make the case that you’re using it as a synonym for “myriad,” please be prepared to prove that you’re speaking of an “indefinitely large number.”

A pretty good use of the word was a reference we made to the “countless other people around the world” who showed support for the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. That group could be considered an “indefinitely large number.” (Might “millions” have been a better word? There’s a case to be made that the answer is yes.)

A poor use of the word was this headline: “The Countless Lives Of Lauren Bacall.” The appreciation of her life that ran with the headline details about a dozen times she “reinvented herself.” That’s not indefinitely large.

What to say instead? A look through our reports shows that, depending on the context, more precise words would have included:

– Many
– Dozens
– Hundreds
– Thousands
– Millions
– Billions

By the way, it is not a job requirement that reporters covering the 2016 campaign always put “countless” before the words “handshakes,” “pork chops,” “county fairs,” “town halls” and “stump speeches.”

(Memmos; Feb. 10, 2015)

February 10, 2015

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