The Census Bureau is halfway through the biggest printing job in its history--a total of 426 million forms for next year's national head count.

"We are on schedule with all our major operations," Census Bureau Director Kenneth Prewitt said last week. "We're feeling pretty good."

The Census Bureau expects to count 275 million people in 120 million U.S. households, including Puerto Rico and other island areas. But it's printing extras to have enough in the five foreign languages it offers and to make sure enumerators have enough when they knock on doors of people who have not returned their paperwork.

Only 65 percent of households returned their forms in 1990. Census officials expect 61 percent will do so next year, necessitating follow-ups for the others.

Bureau officials are billing the 2000 count as a have-it-your-way census. The short form, which goes to five out of six households, is the shortest in 180 years--seven questions on one page. People can fill in forms via the Internet or mail them back (postage paid by the government, of course).

The forms are a distinctive yellow, black and white in an attempt to distinguish them from junk mail. The forms will be optically scanned, so people don't have to worry about how they fill in the boxes: A check, an X or a scrawl will do equally well.

Other census figures so far:

* The forms will also be available in Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese and Tagalog, the language spoken in the Philippines.

* The presses of the private contractors in New Jersey and Ohio printing the forms are running 24 hours, seven days a week into January.

* Printing the 426 million forms will use 14,000 tons of paper--recycled, of course--and 15,000 gallons of ink, the Associated Press reported.

* The bureau is printing 302.2 million short-form questionnaires, 66.5 million long forms and 57.2 million forms for other categories.