Some years ago, my friend Steffen Muench, a German radio journalist, was counting out cash he owed me for theater tickets on a family visit to New York. No matter how many times the two of us counted and recounted, we couldn’t come up with the same figure.
“We can’t count,” I explained to his wife, Andrea. “We’re journalists.”
Even a veteran New York Times staff writer who regularly reported on financial transactions claimed to be incapable of calculating 10 percent. But in an age of data journalism, coding and all sorts of other mathematical incursions into the profession, that’s no longer an excuse. And counting is as essential to good English as it is to journalism. Whether a noun can be counted often determines the grammar surrounding it.
Some nouns can be counted; some can’t. You can count the fingers on your hand, the protesters at a rally, electoral votes. You can count bottles of water, cups of coffee or ice cream cones, but you cannot count the water, coffee or ice cream itself. (When New Yorkers say, “Lemmegedda coffee,” they’re really ordering a cup of it.) In English you cannot count research, evidence, advice or feedback, even if you can in your native language. For example:
A research by Andreas Fuchs of Heidelberg University found the likelihood of the Chinese leadership traveling to a country is 13.6 percent lower if the country’s government receives the Dalai Lama in a given year.
The international student who wrote that meant simply research. Similarly, in English we never do (not make!) researches, just research. And we never give advices or feedbacks, just advice and feedback. But I can give you pieces of advice. Pieces of anything are countable.
Count also affects word choice. Consider this sentence from the same story:
The fact that less than 100 showed up at the October protest is also telling.
The writer meant fewer than 100. You can have more of anything, whether it’s countable like the protesters or uncountable like the freedom they sought. But use fewer with countable nouns and less with uncountable ones. The same goes for many (countable) and much (uncountable).
Here’s a chart to help you keep them straight:
|I’m giving more gifts this Christmas.
I’m giving fewer Christmas gifts this year.
|I’m spending more money this Christmas.
I’m spending less money this Christmas.
(You can spend more or fewer dollars, but money per se is uncountable.)
|Are you giving many gifts?
I’m giving very few.
No, I spent way too much money last year.
l’m spending very little.
These quantifiers are adjectives, but the rule holds when they are used as pronouns. For example, if you eat second, third and fourth helpings (countable) on Thanksgiving, that may be too many, and you will have eaten too much (food, uncountable).
Few and little, meaning not many and not much, are not interchangeable with a few and a little, which mean some. Few and little are more negative. Consider the difference between these two sentencees:
The U.S. has a few options in dealing with North Korea.
The U.S. has few options in dealing with North Korea.
The first is more hopeful, the second rather bleak.
Some similar examples from student writing:
You can come to me at the university, or even at home, at Hudson, few miles north of New York. The writer meant a few.
Few meters away was a makeshift tent where he says he occasionally sleeps when his son is not available to take him back to the transit shelter. Same here: a few.
Most shelter residents sell food and other wares at the local market. Few still tend to their farms back in Ketapang. Here the choice depends on whether the writer wanted to emphasize that not many (few) still tended their farms, or that some (a few) still did.
One last piece of advice: use number with countable nouns, amount or quantity with uncountable ones. A student wrote:
Another reason that limits the amount of lawyers available is that juveniles’ cases are so intensive and complex.
She meant the number of lawyers.