Useful word: Subitize

I remember once having a discussion with one of my writer friends about how to deal with numbers in a group (encountered by the point of view character) when writing from an intense 3rd or 1st person character POV.

She contended that if the narrative didn’t state exactly how many were in the group, it became vague and the reader would lose faith in the author. I had the opposite view — that most people wouldn’t stop to count heads, so in stating the exact number (if more than about four or five, which is evidently about as many as a normal person can subitize) it would seem either a viewpoint slip to omniscient, or out of character.

I was reminded of this long-ago conversation by today’s emailed ‘word of the day’ from Wordsmith:

Subitize: To perceive, without counting, the number of objects in a small group.

If you click-through to this BBC article you can take a test of your subitizing skills, and whereas I would have guessed the limit to be about 7, in my case it was more like 5 (which is normal). Very interesting to know, when one is writing fantasy and has characters encountering groups on a semi-regular basis.

And while I am very happy to learn a cool new word, it doesn’t change my view on the whole ‘counting heads’ scenario. It may, however, impact my characters’ ability to subitize.

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