Calculating Possible Outcomes: Definition & Formula

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  • 0:47 Fundamental Counting…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Liano

David has a Master of Business Administration, a BS in Marketing, and a BA in History.

After completing this lesson, you will be able to state the fundamental counting principle and use it to calculate the number of possible outcomes for multiple events. You will also be able to use the fundamental counting principle to determine the number of permutations of a distinct set of objects.


The calculating of possible outcomes is a process for determining the number of possible results for an event. There are various methods for conducting this process. The best way to calculate the number of possible outcomes of an event is dependent on the type of event and the structure of the event.

A simple example can be found in sports. In any baseball game, there are two possible outcomes: Team A wins or Team B wins. However, a possibility problem can be much more complex than determining the number of possible winners of an athletic competition between two teams.

In this lesson, we will discuss how the fundamental counting principle is used to count the number of possible outcomes for multiple events and to count the number of permutations for a distinct group of objects.

Fundamental counting Principle: Multiple Events

Let's say that we want to order an ice cream cone from a local ice cream shop. The shop offers four flavors of ice cream (vanilla, chocolate, pistachio, and mint) and two types of cones (regular and cinnamon). We need to determine how many different types of ice cream cones we can order. One way to solve our problem is to create a tree diagram.

Tree Diagram
tree diagram

There are four possibilities from just choosing an ice cream flavor. Once we choose an ice cream flavor, we need to choose a cone. There are two possible cones to choose from, so there are two possible combinations with each flavor. Therefore, the possible number of ice cream cones is 4 x 2 = 8. We can also see this in the tree diagram.

We just used the fundamental counting principle. This principle states that if there are p possibilities for one event and q possibilities for a second event, then the number of possibilities for both events is p x q. We can add additional events to this formula. Let's say that we can also choose a topping for our ice cream cone from among three choices of toppings. Then the possible number of ice cream cones is 4 x 2 x 3 = 24.

A famous example of the fundamental counting principle is the possible combination of letters and numbers for a vehicle license plate. Of course, each state has its own policy for the number and types of characters that can be put on a license plate issued in that respective state. Let's say that our plate has four numbers and two letters similar to the New York plate shown. The numbers come first and then the letters.

New York License Plate
license plate

The numbers can range from 0 to 9 and the letters can be any letter of the alphabet. There are 10 possible outcomes for each of the first four characters and 26 possible outcomes for each of the last two characters. Using the fundamental counting principle, the possible combination of numbers and letters on our license plate is 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 26 x 26 = 6,760,000. Just imagine using a tree diagram to solve this problem.

Fundamental Counting Principle: Permutations

A permutation is an arrangement, or ordering, of a set of objects. Let's say that we have a horse race of six horses and that we need to arrange these horses in the starting gate. We want to determine how many arrangements of the six horses are possible.

Starting Gate of a Horse Race
horse race

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