"Too much Obama vote"

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For the linguistically sensitive, one of the burning questions stemming from last night's election-night coverage was, "When did vote become a mass noun?" Several observers picked up on the usage: Monica Macaulay on the Mr. Verb blog, Nancy Friedman on the Fritinancy blog, and Josef Fruehwald, Jonah Ostroff, Dane Pritchard, Kate Stafford, and Elizabeth Preston on Twitter. If you missed the mass-nounification of vote, you can hear several examples in this clip documenting the remarkable moment on Fox News when Megyn Kelly confronts her number-crunching Decision Desk colleagues after Karl Rove questioned their call of Ohio for Obama:

Before the clip cuts off, you can hear them say "too much Obama vote," "a lot of vote to be counted," "we're looking at actual raw vote," and "sufficient vote in Ohio." (You can also hear one count-noun use: "There just aren't enough Republican votes left.")

The shift of vote to mass-noun usage (where count-noun votes might be expected) may remind some of previous election jargon, particularly chad in 2000. For a discussion of the case of chad, see Arnold Zwicky's 2001 presentation "Counting Chad," his 2006 LL post, "Plural, mass, collective," and my 2008 post, "'Chad' back in the news."

[As noted in the comments below, vote has been used in the past in specific mass-noun contexts requiring the article the. Relevant OED senses include:

6c. The collective support of a special number or class of persons in a deliberative decision, election, etc. (Cf. 7c.)

1851 ‘L. Mariotti’ Italy 391 We must not, indeed, allow that it was the result of the Lombard vote that turned Sardinia's allies into enemies.

1884 Nation (N.Y.) 3 July 1/3 Mr. Blaine will get the following ‘votes’. The Hebrew vote, because he spoke severely about the persecution of the Jews by Russia; the Dynamite vote, because he is down on the English.

7c. The aggregate of voters, esp. of a certain class. (Cf. 6c.)

1888 Daily Chron. 26 Apr. in Cassell's, Alluding to the large amount of the illiterate vote in Ireland.

What is particularly new is the use of vote in "anarthrous" (article-less) contexts where those not versed in election jargon would likely use plural count-noun votes.]


  1. Thor said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 2:09 pm

    Surely that's been around for a long time? I think it's usually used in describing different demographics: "the white vote", "the Hispanic vote", "the youth vote".

    [(bgz) Sorry, I should have clarified that the mass-noun usage that's cropping up is not of the typical arthrous form "the vote" (as in "get out the vote" or "the X vote"). Instead, vote is getting mass-nouned in precisely the contexts where you'd expect plural count-noun votes ("too much Obama vote" vs. "too many Obama votes").]

  2. Steve said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 2:24 pm

    The term "raw vote" really interests me. Particularly since they brought-up exit polling, is this one of the first times they've analyzed raw vote over exit polling? Is that one of the reasons for moving vote to mass count?

  3. Craig said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 2:58 pm

    So once "a vote" is cast, "the votes" become a part of a mass called "vote." This is logical because for people actually working to count vote(s), the mass of data becomes a lot like, say, "grain" — "a grain" becomes part of a mass "grain" which is spoken of thus because the people who work with it almost never deal with the individual units, but with the mass. Same with "mail" (vs. "letters" "pieces of mail"). Perhaps the further we move away from the days when the activity of counting votes involves actually looking at each ballot, the more likely it is that the technicians' terminology will move in this direction. So the one reference to "Republicans' votes" could still thinking of it in terms of the voters' input, which are still "votes" because there is still an individualism to them. But once they switch to talking about the mass that they see carted into offices in cardboard boxes, that's "vote."

  4. Ted said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 3:06 pm

    Could this be an instance of an adjectival form with the noun omitted? In the "raw vote" example, at least, it seems like the analyst was discussing raw-vote data, as contrasted to the exit-poll data from 2004 that Kelly cited in framing the question. If he had included the word "data," this wouldn't seem particularly remarkable. So maybe the only thing that's new here is the omission of the noun, which might be easily inferred among speakers whose days are spent analyzing data.

  5. Rubrick said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 3:22 pm

    Just remember, when you're considering whether to go to the polls: Every bit of vote counts.

  6. Bruce Rusk said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 4:26 pm

    Recency illusion? 1870s examples:
    from a letter by a group of senators to the President:"…murder and outrage so prevailed … as substantially to prevent any republican vote." Source
    From Senate testimony, 1877: "Well that is somewhere in the neighborhood of the democratic strength in Coffee County but you see there is no republican vote there. Coffee County, on a fair vote, will always go republican. Dale County–288 republican and 1,144 democratic. That is about 150 more democratic votes than they have there and there is no democratic vote scarcely." Source

  7. Arnold Zwicky said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 1:28 am

    In the section of my LLog piece "Zero relationships" (here) on C>M conversions, there's a subtype that might take in these vote examples: on "expanse massification":

    A C noun has a M use to denote an assemblage of things presenting themselves en masse ("We rounded a corner in the Dutch countryside and were confronted with a huge expanse of tulip").

    . (The example is a variation on an attested one.)

    These figurative uses are not hard to get for straightforwardly concrete nouns like tulip, though actual examples aren't easy to find. Figurative uses of nouns like vote are more of a stretch, but still, I think, acceptable.

    Spam and e-mail clearly started as M nouns that were then countified (and chad probably falls in with them), so historically they run in the opposite direction from vote.

  8. Rodger C said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 8:26 am

    @Bruce Rusk: The examples you give don't seem to me to be anarthrous, since they're qualified by "no."

  9. Rod Johnson said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 10:02 am

    Ted's suggestion seems like a really common strategy in people's folk theories about language (and I think I have to include much of Chomskyan theory in this category), which is, when faced with anomalous (from the standpoint of theory) data, to invent some mechanism of explaining away the anomaly, even if it means reducing the falsifiability of the theory. In physics and philosophy of science this is called "saving the phenomena"; the classic example is the use of epicycles to explain away the retrograde motions of the outer planets. In this case, the epicycle is the idea that the head noun is "really" there, it's just elided. Somehow this is more appealing than the idea that a count-mass transition has taken place. But it's hard to see whether it could ever be confirmed or disconfirmed.

    And the "really" in "really there" is quite a slippery thing; generations of generative linguists have used formal devices like the affix hopping, rule ordering, the cycle, derivational constraints, binding theory, big PRO and little pro, etc., and elevating them to "real" status rather than formal devices that need further explanation, have caused crisis after crisis in the Chomskyan world as each generation reacts to the abstractness and learnability issues that such a formalist approach causes.

    (Sorry for getting all theoretical in a data-oriented discussion–feel free to ignore. And apologies to Ted for seeming critical–you just provoked some thoughts, no criticism intended.)

  10. Dan Lufkin said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 10:02 am

    Note that the respondents do not share the Fox News idiolect. Chris says "Democratic voters," not "Democrat voters." I thought they stood their ground well in the face of an obviously furious news anchorette.

  11. Eric P Smith said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 11:09 am

    Has 'vote' as a mass noun not been around for a long time, in the phrase "share of the vote"? According to Google n-grams, that phrase has been much more common than "share of the votes" since about 1950.

  12. Eric P Smith said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 11:10 am

    Also, "split the vote", common for 100 years.

  13. A Reader said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 11:29 am

    Eric P Smith, both of those are arthrous usages (with 'the') – see the update in the original post.

  14. Bloix said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 2:07 pm

    "These figurative uses are not hard to get for straightforwardly concrete nouns like tulip, though actual examples aren't easy to find."

    In addition to grain (per Craig, above) there's coin, e.g.:

    "In particular, much silver coin arrived by trade and tribute from the states of the Aegean and the Greek world."


    Also the safari guide or big game hunter's use of lion, buffalo, zebra, etc. as mass nouns.

    Some building materials may follow the same pattern, but perhaps the resemblance is superficial: a brick – brick, a stone – stone, a slate – slate, a tile – tile.

    But not a board – board. A board is made of solid wood. Board is a manufactured and compressed material (cardboard, fiberboard).

  15. Martha said,

    November 9, 2012 @ 1:44 am

    There's a difference for me between building materials (as Bloix mentions), or things like mail or grain (as Craig mentions) and "vote," because a vote isn't a tangible thing. You can say "Look at all that grain!" but you can't say "Look at all that vote!" unless, I suppose, you're looking at a mountain of ballots, but I doubt that's the way you'd word it in that instance.

  16. Rodger C said,

    November 9, 2012 @ 9:04 am

    "The attacking force comprised X units of foot and X of horse."

  17. Martha said,

    November 9, 2012 @ 5:15 pm

    When I see "foot" and "horse" used like that, it sounds like foot meat and horse meat to me. (Like countable chicken birds and uncountable chicken meat.)

  18. Bloix said,

    November 9, 2012 @ 5:47 pm

    Martha, how about:
    a thought – thought
    ("Don't give it a thought" – "the development of thought")
    a love – love
    an emotion – emotion

  19. Martha said,

    November 10, 2012 @ 1:42 am

    Thought, love, and emotion are typically used in a noncount sense, though. Since I don't ordinarily hear "foot" or "horse" (or the other animals mentioned in another comment above) used in a noncount sense, my mind first goes to what you're normally referring to when talking about animal this way: its meat.

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