Author Topic: The Proper Use of "Amount" and "Number"  (Read 11728 times)

Joe Carillo

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The Proper Use of "Amount" and "Number"
« on: July 25, 2009, 02:07:00 AM »
One grammar pitfall in English is the misuse of the words “amount” and “number” when referring to the quantity of a particular thing. Every now and then, for instance, our ears would be pinged when a rookie TV anchor or newscaster says, “A large “amount” of people are attending the multisectoral rally at Rizal Park.” The correct word to refer to the size of crowds is, of course, “number,” and although we expect TV journalists to know their English much better than we do, we tend to overlook and forgive this particular grammar transgression because we probably often commit it ourselves.

For good measure then, let’s do a full-dress review of how to deal with the countable and noncountable nouns in English. As we all know, something is countable if we can figure out without great difficulty how many of it there are; we then use “number” as an indefinite measure for it, as in “the number of candidates,” “a number of job openings,” “the number of parties involved,” and “the growing number of complaints.” In contrast, something is noncountable if it is in bulk form and counting its constituent units would be insufferably difficult or impossible; we then use “amount” as an indefinite measure for it, as in “the amount of potable water,” “a great amount of energy,” “a great amount of patience,” and “a large amount of dissatisfaction.”

Notice in the examples above that “number” is used as a measure for so-called plural count nouns (“candidates,” “job openings,” “parties,” “complaints”), meaning that they are nouns that generally can be pluralized with the suffix “-s” or “-ies.” On the other hand, “amount” is used as a measure for so-called singular mass nouns (“water,” “energy,” “patience,” “dissatisfaction”), meaning that they are nouns denoting a homogeneous substance or an indivisible concept and as such generally can’t be pluralized with the suffix “-s” or “-ies.”

We can better appreciate the difference between “number” and “amount” by relating them to the usage of the comparatives “fewer” and “less.”

As we already know, “fewer” is used as a comparative for plural count nouns, or things that use “number” as measure; thus, using the nouns earlier given as examples, we say, “There are fewer candidates for club president this year,” “We find fewer job openings in the classified ads these days,” “Fewer parties took interest in the public bidding for the irrigation project,” and “The city police reported fewer robberies in 2008 than those of the previous year.” As in the example given in the first paragraph above, native speakers of English would get the same ping in the ears if we used “less” instead of “fewer” in these sentences.

On the other hand, “less” is used as a comparative for singular mass nouns, or things that use “amount” as a measure; thus, also using the same examples of singular mass nouns given earlier, we say, “We consumed less water this month than last month,” “Our factories should consume less energy to remain competitive,” “The manager proved to have less patience with the student interns than we anticipated,” and “The latest consumer survey shows less dissatisfaction with our products than last quarter’s.” Try using “fewer” in place of “less” in these sentences and you’ll surely get the same ping in the ears as before.

We need to know, however, that when plural count nouns are thought of as an aggregate, “amount” instead of “number” can be used as a measure for them, as in the following examples: “We will supply you with whatever amount of Hawaiian pineapples you will require.” “No amount of words will convince a rational-thinking person that Earth is only 5,000 years old.” Also, in certain cases, it is grammatically correct to use a singular mass noun in the plural-count sense, like “food” in the following sentence: “We need to reduce the number of kilos of food we buy weekly.” (November 1, 2008)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, November 1, 2008 issue © 2008 by The Manila Times. All rights reserved.

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« Last Edit: October 16, 2013, 07:35:29 AM by Joe Carillo »