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I’ve been noticing more questions 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 this 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 (especially the native English speakers among you) think – does “count the number of ways” sound right to you? Do you perhaps even prefer it over “count the ways”?

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    $\begingroup$ Better suited to [EnglishLanguageAndUsage.se]. $\endgroup$ – amWhy Mar 24 at 18:31
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    $\begingroup$ "How do I love thee? Let me count the number of ways." doesn't really work. (Elizabeth Barrett Browining, Sonnet 43 (not)). $\endgroup$ – Peter Phipps Mar 24 at 19:39
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    $\begingroup$ I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this is a question for English Language Learners or English Language & Usage. $\endgroup$ – Xander Henderson Mar 24 at 19:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Peter, I too, thought of that poem, but note that the answer in the poem isn't a number, but a list; "count the ways" interpreted as "recount the ways". If the poet had written, "let me count the number of ways," the poem would simply have continued, "One, two, three, ..., ten; yes, I love thee ten ways," and would have been long since forgotten. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Mar 25 at 4:42
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    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson: I see, "recount the ways" – a combinatorial proof of love by double counting? $\endgroup$ – joriki Mar 25 at 6:24
  • $\begingroup$ I've now posted this at EL&U. $\endgroup$ – joriki Mar 25 at 6:34
  • $\begingroup$ The important thing is clarity of meaning. "Count the number of ways" has the advantage of identifying that a number is sought, rather than a list of possibilities. The computational complexity of the former is often less than the latter, and so choice of algorithm will often hinge on what exactly is needed. $\endgroup$ – hardmath Mar 25 at 15:36

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