How many of us are there

Let’s start today’s podcast by looking at the title – “How many of us are there?” The title is asking a question – “How many people are there in Britain?” But instead of talking about “people in Britain”, I have used a pronoun – “us”. And when we use a pronoun after “how many” or “how much”, we have to use the little word “of” as well. So “How many of us are there?” – not “how many us are there?”

Here are some more examples. Suppose that you and a group of friends go to the cinema. You go to the ticket desk to buy the tickets, but you are not sure how many tickets you need to buy. So, you shout to your friends, who are busy buying popcorn, “How many of us are there?” One of your friends counts, and shouts “Six”. So you buy six tickets.

Imagine a class of children at school. They are doing a project about how they travel to school each day. The teacher asks “How many of you come to school on the bus? How many of you walk to school?”

And finally, two small boys are collecting cards with pictures of famous footballers on them. The cards are free inside packets of sweets. There are 50 different cards, with 50 different footballers, altogether. “I have got 20 different players”, says one boy. “How many of them have you got?”

Once every 10 years since 1801, our government has carried out a census of people in Britain, so that it can count how many of us there are. The first British census wanted only very simple information, such as how many people there were altogether, and whether the population was increasing or not. It counted how many young men there were, because young men could be made to become soldiers or sailors in a time of war. Government officials went to every part of the country, to count how many houses there were, and how many people lived in each house, how old they were and what occupations they had. They counted the number of baptisms, marriages and deaths in church records. They concluded that there were 8.87 million of us; plus further number of perhaps half a million soldiers. sailors and convicts whom the census had been unable to count.

Our latest census has just started. It will count the number of people in the country on 27 March 2011. Instead of government officials visiting each house, the government have sent a form to each household. The form is 32 pages long. It asks how many people stayed in the house overnight on 27 March, and how many of them lived there permanently, and how many were visitors. It asks about family relationships, dates of birth and what jobs people do. It asks where we were born, what nationality we are, and what educational qualifications we have. The government also wants to know how we travel to work, whether we speak English as our first language, and if not how good our English is. There are questions, too, about our house – what sort of house is it? how many bedrooms does it have? who owns it? and what sort of central heating is there?

Some of the questions in the census are controversial. One asks “How would you describe your national identity?" We can choose whether we would describe ourselves as British, or English, or Scots, or Welsh or something else. The form has a space where we can write in our own description of our national identity if we wish. If I write “Martian” (a Martian is someone from the planet Mars), will that be OK, or will I get a visit from the police?

There is a question, too, about religious identity.