Wick Communications

Countless misuse of the term

In Writing on 12 Feb 2015 at 2:47 pm


When you are an editor, you are bound to come across various usage misdemeanors and felonious crimes of style that drive you crazy. It’s a hazard of the job.

Sometimes these peculiarities say as much about said editor as they do the ruffian who made the mistake. For instance, I continue to rail about the “over/more than thing” (over conveys a spatial relationship as in “the book is over the desk,” while more than is a quantitative thing) even though AP recently ruled it was a distinction without a difference. No matter! I soldier on, berating any poor soul who writes, “there are over 200 million people in America.” But I digress.

Recently, Mark Memmott, the standards editor for NPR went on a tirade about misusing the modifier “countless.” While he did not find countless incidents of misuse, he did find a lot. Two-hundred-and-fifty-five in NPR broadcasts and Web publishing in the last year, to be exact. I wouldn’t know about this particular and wholly justifiable crusade were it not for Benjamin Mullin’s column on the Poynter site.

As Memmott points out, countless means “too many to count; innumerable; myriad.” Which means there aren’t really “countless” reincarnations of Lauren Bacall’s career or “countless” handshakes from a particular politician on the campaign trail.

Just for fun, I decided to check “countless” Wick papers (OK, three) and see how often we misuse the term. I counted 28 uses of the word in the past year in the Pierre Capital Journal. The misused modifier appeared as often as not in obituaries, so that hyperbole is likely due to family submissions. There were 27 “countlesses” in the last year in the Mat-Su Frontiersman. …

We at the Half Moon Bay Review used the word 19 times in the last year, including once by yours truly, completely inappropriately, in a story about “countless” Portuguese social societies in the Bay Area. In truth, there are probably a dozen.

Consider me chastened. Perhaps you will reconsider the word as well.



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