Grammar Usage

Doing a number on amount

Q: I become nauseated when someone confuses “amount” with “number” in quantifying something. For example, “the amount of cars in the parking lot.” I hear this error all too frequently out of the mouths of people who should know better.

A: In contemporary English, “amount” is generally used with mass nouns and “number” with count nouns. (Mass nouns, like “water” and “love,” are usually singular while count nouns, like “boy” and “car,” can be singular or plural.)

However, the distinction between “amount” and “number” wasn’t always so clear, and we’re simplifying the way these two words are used now.

In fact, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage takes more than a page of small  type to describe the variations in the way the two words are used.

Here are a couple of examples from Merriam-Webster’s of “amount” used with singular mass nouns:

“a reasonable amount of prosperity,” from The Olive Tree, a 1937 collection of essays by Aldous Huxley;

“a ridiculous amount of erudition,” from “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” a 1917 essay by T. S. Eliot.

And here are two examples from M-W  of “number” used with plural count nouns:

“a number of misprints,” from the October 1966 issue of the journal Notes and Queries;

“a number of other schools,” from Slums and Suburbs: A Commentary on Schools in Metropolitan Areas (1961), by James B. Conant.

However, the usage guide says “amount” is sometimes used “with plural count nouns when they are thought of as an aggregate.” Here are some examples:

“he’d be glad to furnish any amount of black pebbles,” from the Sept. 20, 1952, issue of the New Yorker;

“the high amount of taxes,” from the Sept. 29, 1975, issue of Harper’s Weekly.

Merriam-Webster’s gives seven other citations from respectable sources, including one that’s very much like the example you find nauseating:

“One of the minor mysteries of modern life is the large amount of police cars with flashing lights and sirens,” from a July 15, 1975, issue of Punch.

We would have preferred “number” in the Punch example, as well as in the one you mentioned. But Merriam-Webster’s sees nothing wrong in using “amount” with count nouns that act like mass nouns:

“This less common use of amount is sometimes criticized, but the critics bring forth no cogent reason for condemning it, only the condemnation itself.”

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