I’ve been noticing more questions on math.SE recently that want to “count the number” of something, e.g. count the number of arrangements of a certain type. My initial reaction to this was: “You don’t count the number of arrangements; you count the arrangements.” Then I checked the Ngram Viewer and found that “counts the number of ways” is actually more common than “counts the ways”. The difference is even more pronounced for “count the number of times” vs. “count the times”. Then I checked my own answers on the site and found that I’d written “count the number” so often myself that the search results don’t fit on a page, and that I’d in fact written “count the number of ways” more often than “count the ways”.

This humbling experience made me wonder whether perhaps I was being too prescriptivist and whether “counting the number of” might be a perfectly normal English expression. What do you think – does “count the number of ways” sound right to you? Do you perhaps even prefer it over “count the ways”?

(I originally asked this at meta.math.SE, where it was closed as off-topic and better suited to this site.)

  • 1
    You seem to have answered your own question: your research showed "count the number of" to be the more common expression. Elizabeth Barrett Browning might not agree though.
    – nnnnnn
    Mar 25, 2020 at 7:16
  • Even in Barret's time, count the number was tied for first as the most common "count the (wildcard)" ngram. There was a peak in count the cost used in Christian religious texts at the time. Otherwise, count the number has been the most common ngram for as long as good data exists (since about 1740 or so).
    – Phil Sweet
    Mar 25, 2020 at 12:52


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