Today’s (December 11) online New York Times carries an article dealing with the quantum increase of plastic material in the ocean under the headline, “Bits of plastic in oceans: 5.25 trillion and counting,” followed with the lead copy;

“New computer modeling suggests that plastic particles weighing almost 269,000 tons are floating in the world’s oceans.”

Though it may sound a very naïve question, how can I take the word, “and counting” here?

Does it mean 5.25 trillion bits of plastic is “being counted,” “still on increase,” “a serious matter,” or else?

English dictionaries at hand include too many definitions and usages of “count,” and I can’t judge which one of them is applicable to the above headline.

  • This means the average plastic bit weighs .002 ounces.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 22:45
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    @Oldcat - The bits are that small. One problem is that they're small enough to get inside the cells of marine animals, creating all sorts of problems.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 23:15
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    @Oldcat It does say plastic particles, so it doesn't really get much smaller and lighter. Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 23:27
  • The number is not being counted: instead a recent PLoS article based it on the estimated amount of plastic in the oceans and the estimated sizes. Some pieces are bigger such as some netting shown here where some netting is providing a marine habitat
    – Henry
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 22:28
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    What s "quantum" supposed to mean in your opening sentence? Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 1:24

7 Answers 7


The phrase “and counting” was popularized by the old pre-launch countdowns of the U.S. space program; it meant that the number of minutes or seconds till launch was actively in process of decreasing. (If the countdown were stopped, the number of minutes or seconds remaining in the countdown would be followed by “and holding.”) In the case of oceanic trash, the number of items is said by this phrase to be in process of increasing.

  • 3
    countdowns go the other way. I think this phrase is older than that.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 22:46
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    @Oldcat - The idiom may be older, but they did typically say "T minus 6 minutes and counting".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 22:52
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    Actually, since the old countdowns would go from "T minus six minutes and counting" to "T minus five minutes and counting," they were talking about a number's increasing, since -5 > -6. Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 23:09
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    It doesn't matter whether it's an increase or a decrease. Counting is direction-indifferent. You can count both forwards and backwards. If you're counting 7, 6, 5, 4, etc., then you're still counting. Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 23:29
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    I disagree that counting is direction-indifferent. Counting up is the default. If you want to use "and counting" to imply decrease, you had better hope the direction is very clear from context (as it is in the NASA example). If the amount of plastic in the ocean was decreasing, for example, using "... and counting" to convey this would be deeply confusing.
    – Curtis H.
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 18:00

In this case ...and counting means that the number is continually increasing with time.


It could easily be rewritten to say:

Bits of plastic in oceans: over 5.25 trillion and increasing

You can imagine it like:

We've counted 5.25 trillion and we're still counting.

  • 8
    I disagree. We don't have a situation where part of the pile has been counted but we haven't finished the pile. Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 12:49
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    This does seem to change the meaning significantly. When voting day is over and people are counting ballots, you could say "...and we're still counting", as in "this is how much we've counted so far". But "...and counting" in this case means that the thing being counted is itself increasing, regardless of the efficiency of your counting method.
    – BrianH
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 15:35
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    No, that is simply wrong. We know (estimated) count, and and counting part means that that count is increasing in time, not that we are still counting.
    – Davor
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 17:44
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    Firstly, I said you can imagine it like not this is literally what it means. Regardless, the article doesn't make it clear if it's simply increasing or if it's not completely counted. I think it can (and often does) mean both. It sounds like people here are arguing for the idea that ecologists have completely counted all of the bits of plastic in the ocean...while more plastic is added everyday. They are probably literally still counting plastic...as in, "We'll never catch up. It's perpetual." It's a nuance that other answers didn't include, so I added it. Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 18:52
  • It is more like we are counting the bits of plastic as they come in and we are still counting (so they are still coming in).
    – JamesRyan
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 15:38

Since every answer seems to use the word increasing, I'd suggest progressing as an alternative. As mentioned in the comments of Brian's answer, the phrase "and counting" could mean increasing or decreasing.

A quick google gives a definition from wiktionary: en.wiktionary.org/wiki/and_counting

and counting

(idiomatic) used to show that the number previously mentioned is continuously changing, i.e. increasing or decreasing
This online dictionary has 100,000 articles — and counting.
Hurry up, the train leaves in three minutes. No, two minutes and counting!

The exact direction the number progresses/changes is derived from the context and should be obvious if the the idiom is used correctly.

That said, it's more common for it to mean increasing unless time is being counted.

  • +1 for wiktionary. I think its definition says it best (the number is continuously increasing or decreasing). I disagree with progressing.
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 13:11

A Google Books search finds two instances of "minutes and counting" (and "seconds and counting" from the same articles)—but nothing earlier. From "Countdown!" in Popular Mechanics Magazine (July 1958), describing the test launch of "a mighty Atlas" intercontinental ballistic missile:

With the new supply of oxygen delivered and the trucks safely out of the area the count resumes: "T minus 36 minutes and counting." Nearly two hours have been lost. Again liquid oxygen is pumped into the missile.

"T minus 10 minutes and counting."

The test conductor receives new reports on the weather, range instrumentation and range safety.

"T minus four minutes and counting."

A flow of water is started over the flame deflector to preserve it from the blast of the rocket engines.


"T minus 40 seconds and counting."

The level of liquid oxygen is checked and adjusted if necessary.

"T minus 35 seconds and counting."

Telemetering recorders are turned on.

"T minus 27 seconds and counting."


Automatic cameras around the stand begin operating.

"T minus 10 seconds and counting."

"Nine, eight, seven ..."

Another set of cameras starts.

"Six, five, four ..."

The vernier engines start.

"Three, two, on."

The last set of cameras starts.


Silence in the blockhouse is broken by the simultaneous cry of "mainstage" from the two periscope officers.

We have lift-off.

And from Aviation Week and Space Technology, volume 68 (1958), coverage of a similar countdown—or perhaps an independent account of the same one [combined snippets]:

• At T-minus-60 sec., test conductor announces "T minus 60 seconds and counting." Range safety command devices (engine cutoff and missile destruct explosives) armed.

• At T-minus-50 sec., pad safety officer reports the range is ready for firing.

• At T-minus-45 sec., test conductor makes these checks, panel operators respond. "Range safety armed light on— Roger." "Range ready— Roger." "Water system ready— Roger." "Preparation complete light— Green." "Liquid oxygen tanking secured— Roger."

...and so on. You can almost hear Slim Pickens (in Dr. Strangelove) intoning "one hundred dollars in rubles; one hundred dollars in gold; nine packs of chewing gum; one issue of prophylactics ..."

Anyway, it seems clear that Brian Donovan is correct in attributing the "and counting" catchphrase to the U.S. government's space and rocketry programs—although the phrase is slightly older than the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which Wikipedia says took over from the older National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) on October 1, 1958. It's also interesting that in its original form "and counting" meant "and counting down toward zero," whereas today the phrase frequently occurs in settings (such as the one in New York Times article) where the count is going up toward an indefinitely higher number.


I agree with other answers in this case: and counting typically indicates that the quantity is continuing to increase.

I'd also like to add that and counting can be used when the quantity being counted isn't changing at all, but is still in the process of being counted. In most such cases, it suggests that the quantity is too large or irregular in nature to make an accurate guess at the final count before counting has been completed.

It's actually possible that both meanings are implied in the garbage example. Not only is garbage constantly being generated, but it's also difficult to guess at exactly how much exists at any point in time by its nature.

  • As an example: There are x visible stars and counting. Though you could argue that what's increasing here is our knowledge of stars.
    – DanielST
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 16:49

Yeah, "... and counting" is an idiom indicating that the number/amount of whatever was being counted continues to increase steadily.

It may, as Brian Donovan suggests, come from the old space launch jargon: "T minus 6 minutes and counting." But it's also quite possible that the idiom existed before then.

  • 5
    I'm unsure of why you added this answer knowing that it was already given. It doesn't seem to provide any additional information that isn't in answers or comments. Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 23:41

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