Q&A: Amount vs number

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we have a number of questions about the word ‘amount’…

Q: Hi AWC, I have a large number of questions this week.

A: What are they about?

Q: They’re about whether I should be saying that I have a large “amount” of questions this week, instead of “number”.

A: No, you were right the first time.

Q: Gah! Is it random or is there a rule?

A: You’ll be pleased to know that for this one, there is definitely a rule.

Q: Phew.

A: So it works in a similar way to a topic we’ve previously discussed – less vs fewer.

Q: Oh, okay, so that’s where the supermarkets are all wrong when they say “10 items or less” at their express checkouts.

A: That’s right. It should be “10 items or fewer”.

Q: Of course, these days it’s all self-serve checkouts, so that example doesn’t really work.

A: Or you could say, “there are fewer express checkouts” and not “there are less express checkouts”.

Q: Wow, look at you finding learning moments everywhere.

A: Thanks.

Q: So, remind me how this one is similar?

A: It’s all about things you can count (also known as ‘count nouns’) and things that you cannot count (also known as ‘mass nouns’).

Q: So I count myself lucky that my cousin Tim doesn’t live with me anymore, because I just could never count on him. Is it like that?

A: It’s nothing like that. What was so bad about Tim?

Q: He drank milk and orange juice directly from the bottle, which no one does except on American sitcoms.

A: Fair enough.

Q: I could hardly sleep because of the canned laughter.

A: Umm, okay. Well, anyway, if you have a “number” of things, these are things you can count – quite easy because you literally count numbers! For example, “The shop sold a large number of umbrellas this week”.

Q: It did? Which shop was that? Were they having a sale? Did Rihanna release a greatest hits album?

A: It’s just an example, keep up.

Q: Okay sorry.

A: Meanwhile, “amount” is used for uncountable things. For example, “There was a large amount of rain predicted”.

Q: But wait, you CAN count rain – for example, “50mm of rain”. Right?

A: Well, you can measure rain but you can’t count it. We’re not asking about the number of millimetres of rain that fell (note that “millimetres” would be countable). It’s different.

Q: Well, at least now we know why there was a spike in umbrella sales.

A: And that’s the rule – “number” for countable things and “amount” for uncountable. Simple.

Q: Anything else to add?

A: If in doubt, work out which question you would ask – if it’s “how many”, you want “number” and “how much” is “amount”. So: “How many umbrellas do I need?” vs “how much rain fell last night”.

Q: Great stuff. And here I was thinking this chat would amount to nothing, but you really did a number on it…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!


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