Submitted by dima  •  September 20, 2006

Amount of people

This is one that a good portion of the population is guilty of. I hear plenty of people use “amount” while referring to discrete objects, such as cars or people. (Yes, I just called people objects.)

I don’t remember actually learning this rule, but I have always used “amount” while referring to things that do not easily separate into countable parts, such as water, sand, courage, experience, etc. It seems to me that “number of people” (or some other phrase, depending on context) should be used instead.

I understand that there are cases where this can get confusing (”amount of time” but “number of minutes”), but I think it’s never okay to use “amount” with something that is thought of as a collection of separate objects. Am I crazy? Does this make anyone else cringe? I don’t think I made this rule up, but I will concede that it’s a possibility.

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Does this help? From dictionary.com:

—Usage note The traditional distinction between amount and number is that amount is used with mass or uncountable nouns (the amount of paperwork; the amount of energy) and number with countable nouns (a number of songs; a number of days). Although objected to, the use of amount instead of number with countable nouns occurs in both speech and writing, especially when the noun can be considered as a unit or group (the amount of people present; the amount of weapons) or when it refers to money (the amount of dollars paid; the amount of pennies in the till).

Do note, the relevant dictionary entries include definitions such as quantity, measure, number, sum, total of two or more quantities, aggregate. As such, I'm not sure if it's completely wrong to use "amount" in place of "number", at least not in all cases.

Here's a question: if I said "...the amount of people at the party" vs. "...the number of people at the party", would it mean the same thing? In this case, would "amount" refer to the group as a whole, but "number" refer to the actual numeric total, say 15 people?

Personally, I find much vs. many a more annoying misuse fo the language.

Lastly, it's interesting that "amount" or "much" is substituted for "number" or "many", but almost never happens the other way around.

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See, to me the only way "...the amount of people at the party" can sound correct is if people were a substance measured by weight or volume. If you put them all in a blender and ended up with a big bowl of "substance people", where separate people are no longer distinguishable, then I can accept it.

I don't have a problem with something like "That's a lot of man!" while referring to a very large man. Although "man" is generally used to describe a single person, here it's being implied that the person in question has been molded out of a large amount of "substance man".

I agree with you about much vs. many. It's basically the same problem of distinguishing between countable and uncountable.

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I think Lance has a point. In my experience there are usually a number of people at a party until I start to see double. Thereafter they become an amount of people.

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um... That should be "are not pejoratives here"

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Dima, if you ever invite me to a party, I think I'll pass on the Bloody Marys.

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The number of times I have seen this abomination (e.g. "the amount of shoes", "the amount of times", "the amount of goals", "the amount of chances" et cetera ad nauseam) is truly remarkable. The simplest way to know which to use is this: If you would inquire "How many?" then use "number". If you would inquire "How much?" then use "amount"?

How many people were at the party last night? Bingo --> Number of people

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I am a Pole and, surprisingly enough, people make the equivalent of this mistake in Polish. Somehow people don't stop to pay attention to it. But indeed this is a mistake.

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It's not a mistake. It might not be accepted in formal writing, but that's a matter of register.

From the The Columbia Guide to Standard American English
http://www.bartleby.com/68/52/352.html
"Use amount with singular mass nouns (an amount of money; the amount of love), and use number with plural count nouns (the number of castles; a number of sophomores). Common and Vulgar English frequently use amount with plural count nouns (a huge amount of children on the playground), and repeated exposures to that usage often blur the Standard models for us. There are also instances where plural count nouns are treated as representing those items in mass and hence usable with amount (He contracted for an enormous amount of apples). In speech such a use might go almost unnoticed, but Edited English would most likely change it to number or find an entirely different way to say it."

Note that "Vulgar English" and "Common English" are pejoratives here; they are just nonstandard.

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Good one Porsche! Agree to the end.

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You did not make this one up, Dima. I was taught it as a rule of grammar...however I am now 67 years old and I don't think anyone is taught grammar rules anymore.

"Amount" is misused often. I am not conscious of hearing or reading "number" being used inappropriately.

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I agree that to talk about a number of people or cars makes much more sense and sounds better than to talk about an amount of people. But this seems to me to have more to do with the meaning of words than with "grammar rules".

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It's not a problem of being unable to distinguish between countable and uncountable. I find it hard to believe that people don't know the difference between countable and uncountable nouns. Otherwise they would say things like

the number of water in the ocean
the number of sand on the beach

And they don't. Instead, as porsche says, "amount" and "much" are shifting to take some of the load of "number" and "many". There is no trend in the opposite direction.

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The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on historic principals also defines 'amount'
as:To come up to a number or quantity,the sum total to which anything mounts up
and 'number; as,the sum or aggregate of any collection of individual things or persons.

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This seems to be more of a categorization problem than a grammar problem. There are two types of quantities, discreet and continuous. Speaking of an amount of a discreet quantity is like talking about the size of blue.

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I think that I'd object to Goofy's characterization of water and sand as countable nouns.

The particles making up these objects are countable, but the aggregates are uncounted. One might refer to a number of molecules or moles (the molecule being implicit in the unit "mole") of water, but an amount of water. Likewise, one might have a number of grains of sand but an amount of sand. In this sense, the grains of sand and the water molecules lose their individual identities (or they are ignored by the speaker) when considered in the aggregate.

This line of reasoning leads one to conclude that a mob comprises an amount of people rather than a number of persons.

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I didn't say that "water" and "sand" are countable nouns. They are uncountable nouns, also called mass nouns.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncountable_noun

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If you can reasonably count the individuals of the group it is 'number', but if you cannot it is 'amount'. This is the rule I taught my children.

I think the the comment made above regarding countable and measurable as a basic method of distinction between the two is a good model to follow.

I do dislike hearing a group of people refered to as an 'amount of people'. Not nice! I think I need one big Bloody Mary and that would be a large amount of Bloody Mary. Then again I could recover more slowly by consuming several individual Bloody Mary's but that number of Bloody Mary's would render me even more senseless than I already am. :-)

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In teaching this rule to high school English students, I simplify it a bit as follows: Use amount for things measured, and number for things counted. I extend that usage rule to cover less and fewer, as well.

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It's very, very easy- Number is always used when talking about a plural. Whether you know how many people are in a crowd makes no difference- 'Amount of people in a crowd' just sounds clumsy.

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One of my readers has asked me about an extension of this problem. Is it correct to say, "A number of accidents have occurred at this corner" or "A number of accidents has occured at this corner"?

I understand the reasoning behind the question, since "number" is a singular noun even though it describes plural items. However, I believe the correct usage is:

A number of accidents HAVE occurred.....
but
The number of accidents that have occurred has risen.

I hope this adds to the conversation!

Helen Wilkie
http://www.masteringbusinesswriting.com

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Totally agree. In fact before I saw your post, I posted on Facebook :-
'I'm getting grumpier. "The amount of people".... what? 3,000 Kgs of people?'

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