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Disputed words

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Several of Countdown's rules regarding which ODO words are permitted and which are not are applied inconsistently. This page lists words which should be "approached with caution".


Mass noun plurals

The Countdown rules state:-

These notes outline the general rules that the judges in dictionary corner use when deciding whether a noun can have a plural. Nouns and senses of nouns may be labelled in the dictionary as being either [MASS NOUN] or [COUNT NOUN]. If an entry for a noun has no label, it indicates that the noun is an ordinary countable noun, and a plural is allowed: for example, table-tables, boy-boys, book-books, lass-lasses, and so on. If an entry for a noun has the label [MASS NOUN] it means that the word is not usually or typically used in the plural, for example 'sanidine'. In this case the plural would not be allowed. However, there are particular types of mass nouns that can take a plural under certain circumstances – for instance when referring to different types of something such as food. Because these types of nouns follow regular rules for forming plurals in particular contexts, the dictionary does not generally indicate that a plural may be allowed. The main types are listed below. Where a noun falls into one of these categories, it means that a plural is usually allowed, though each individual case will be judged on its merits. Categories of mass nouns that can take a plural:
  1. Types or varieties of:
    • food, e.g. yogurt/yogurts, pasta/pastas, cheese/cheeses
    • drink: e.g. rum/rums, lager/lagers
    • plants: e.g. bergamot
    • certain languages or subjects: e.g. music/musics
    • metals and alloys: e.g. steel/steels, solder/solders
    • rocks: e.g. granite/granites, lava/lavas, clay/clays
    • chemical compounds: e.g. fluoride/fluorides
    • some substances or materials: e.g. rind/rinds, soil/soils, sealskin/sealskins, suncream/suncreams
  2. Portions or units of something, especially food and drink: e.g. lager (glasses/bottles of lager = lagers), paella (dishes of paella = paellas), vindaloo (dishes/plates of vindaloo = vindaloos)
  3. Shades of colours: e.g. pink/pinks, scarlet/scarlets, grey/greys
  4. An instance of:
    • an action or process: e.g. genocide (act of genocide = genocides)
    • a surgical operation: e.g. ablation/ablations
    • an emotion, pain, or feeling: e.g. backache/backaches, grief (an instance or cause of grief = griefs),
  5. An area of land of a specified type: e.g. bogland/boglands, terrain/terrains

Clearly these rules are quite ambiguous and some words have been allowed and disallowed at different times, e.g.


Some words have no obvious basis for pluralisation but have been allowed (implicitly or explicitly) at various points, e.g. PELAGES.

Even words which are explicitly listed in the introduction are generally not permitted if their entry doesn't support it.

Adjective inflections

Countdown rules state:-

The rule of thumb for Countdown is that comparatives of all 2-syllable adjectives must be specified in the dictionary or they will not be allowed on the show. You’ll get used to what is acceptable and what isn't over a period of time – but in general, if it's not listed in the dictionary, it is not allowed – with ONE exception – and this is for 1-syllable adjectives like dark, cold, bleak. The dictionary doesn't list darker and darkest, colder and coldest etc, as we have a general rule that all 1-syllable adjectives can be extended in this way, and they are pretty obvious anyway, so there’s no need to take up space in the book.

However this rule is applied somewhat arbitrarily.

Allowed on Apterous, may not be allowed on Countdown

  • BRUTER, BRUTEST (Assumed inflections of BRUT).

Another issue is adjectives labelled "[in combination]". It is generally assumed that these are not allowed.


Passive verbs

Some verbs appear as headwords but with only the passive form specified, such as "lenite (be lenited)". It is not clear whether the other inflections are to be allowed, and in practice rulings have been inconsistent (e.g. REPUTING in Episodes 3938 and 5146). These are presently allowed on apterous.

  • NEAP

American spellings

Countdown rules that American words are permitted, while American spellings are not. This occasionally causes issues because the ODE itself makes no such distinction, simply marking words as "US" in either case. Generally the distinction is obvious but sometimes it's debatable.

A particularly perplexing example is SULPHUR, listed with "(US & Chemistry) SULFUR". This implies that SULFUR is valid, and a usage note specifies that "the -f- spelling is now the standard form in all related words in the field in both British and US contexts". The -f- spelling is listed only as US (not Chemistry) for most related headwords (e.g. SULPHITE, SULPHURATED), but due to the usage note, the -f- spellings (SULFITE, SULFURATED etc) are generally assumed to be allowed.

Allowed on Apterous, may not be allowed on Countdown

  • ASSHOLE (Considered US spelling of ARSEHOLE but has a recognisably different pronunciation in UK and US dialect).
  • BRINKSMANSHIP (Considered US spelling of BRINKMANSHIP which is obviously just nonsense.)
  • EDGEWISE (Marked as "US" for EDGEWAYS.)

Partially capitalised words

Countdown rules specify that words beginning with capital letters will not be permitted, presumably with the intention of disallowing proper nouns and adjectives. However, the dictionary now contains some words with a capital letter in the middle, e.g. iPod and eBay. Under a strict interpretation of the rules these should be allowed, but it seems likely that they would not be.

Unknown rules

In some cases, the dictionary's intention is hard to discern.

  • WHOLIST(S): WHOLISM is given as "alternative spelling of HOLISM" but HOLISM does not list it. Therefore it is unclear whether the alternative spelling should carry over to the subentries of HOLISM, i.e. HOLIST(S).
  • CUMMINGS: The name of the poet e.e. cummings, given as lower case.
  • LAGOBISES: LAGOBIS is a Jamaican slang term, an eye-dialect spelling of "leggo beast" (an insult) and is not explicitly listed as a noun. If the plural exists at all it is probably not pronounced "lagobises", but the dictionary does not say either way.
  • FARTHER is given as an alternative spelling of FURTHER, in the adjectival sense. The derived noun FURTHERER is also given in the same entry. Presumably this is derived from the verb and therefore FARTHERER is not intended, but this is never actually stated.


  • Plurals of nouns marked "in sing". Some of these seem obviously silly, others are arguable. Examples: AMBIT, GERRYMANDERINGS, GUSTOS, ILKS, OUTSETS, PURVIEWS, RERATINGS, TITTLES, etc.
  • "Usually as noun". Some verbs are listed with "usually as noun" and it's not clear if plurals are intended. Examples: RERATING.
  • "Written abbreviation". Examples: ADVT, BF, GF.
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