Grammar Time: Amount vs. Number

Ok, this one is driving me crazy lately.  I can’t get through a day without seeing something like this in a blog or comment:

and large amounts of middle class women

That makes my teeth itch.  Here’s the very simple rule: if you can count something — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 — then you use number.  If it’s just a mass of stuff, you use amount.  For example:

  • A large number of middle class women enjoy scrapbooking.
  • I ate a large amount of ice cream last night.

See the difference?  You can count women, but you can’t count ice cream.  You can measure it, but you can’t count it; it’s just a mass of dairy goodness. You can count cartons of ice cream, but then you’re talking about the cartons, not the ice cream, so it still follows the rule:

  • I bought a large number of cartons of ice cream.

Easy, right?  People almost always use amount when they should use number; I rarely see it done wrong the other way around.  So when you write amount, stop and think, “Wait, is this something I can count and get a ‘number’ of?”  Another aid is to ask yourself if you could replace it with many.  You could say, “Many middle class women,” but not, “Many ice cream,” so use number where many would work.

I hope that helps.

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3 thoughts on “Grammar Time: Amount vs. Number

  1. I’m really pleased to find that I am not alone. I also get annoyed when people do not know the difference between “there”, “their” and “they’re” and folks who do not differentiate between the noun, “advice” and the the verb “advise”. My old English teacher would have thrown a hissy fit at anyone in second form (Grade 8 in US terms) who made such errors.

    The consequential problem is that we think with words, and if we are unclear in our wording, then our thinking will also be unclear.

  2. The same applies to ‘less’ and ‘fewer’: ‘fewer women’, ‘less ice cream’. One is used when the noun is singular, and the other when it is plural. In contrast, ‘more’ is used in both singular and plural cases.

    In conclusion: fewer ice creams results in less ice cream.

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