Q&A: Amount vs number

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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