“Amount” vs. “Number”

By Mark Nichol

The frequent confusion between amount and number is based on a misunderstanding of a small, simple distinction that the words themselves indicate.

Amount refers to quantities that are measured in bulk or mass — considered as a whole — while number pertains to things that can be counted individually: “The amount of square footage in the attached shed is enough for a push lawn mower or a small barbecue,” but “The total number of square feet includes the attached shed’s square footage.”

In reference to amount, use the terms little or less or the phrase “much more”:

“The amount left is too little to be of any use.”

“The amount is less than I thought.”

“The amount is much more than we expected.”

In reference to number, use the words few or fewer or the phrase “many more”:

“The number of people who have signed up is too few.”

“The number of people here, compared to the number here yesterday, is fewer.”

“The number of people here is many more than we expected.”

(Note that more applies to both amount and number.)

Either word can be applied to a particular thing as long as the description of the thing is consistent with the distinction between amount and number: One can refer to the amount of fun one has had, but one can also count the number of fun things one has done.

Two categories of things that are flexible in terms of these usages are money and time: One can refer to an amount of money or to a number of dollar bills, or to an amount of time or a number of hours: “The amount of money in the cookie jar has decreased” and “The number of dollar bills in the cookie jar has decreased” are both correct, as are “I need to decrease the amount of hours I’m scheduled to work” and “I need to decrease the number of hours I’m scheduled to work.”

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12 Responses to ““Amount” vs. “Number””

  • O

    It’s basically like non-countable and countable nouns. We use amount if it is non-countable and use number if it is countable. Am I right? Or did I still miss something? Great article, by the way! 🙂

  • Rolf Heckemann

    All of the examples are completely awkward, if not downright wrong. Look at “The amount is less than I thought.” If this was correct, you would be able to rephrase it as “there is a less amount than I thought”. Clearly you are not — the rephrased version should read “there is a smaller amount than I thought”, and the original “the amount is smaller than I thought”. Likewise for “more”: there can not be a “more amount”. The appropriate replacement is “greater”.

    Only when you refer to the mass directly are “little”, “less”, or “more” appropriate. E.g. “there is less sugar than I thought”, “there is little time left”.

    Similarly for numbers: “The number of people who have signed up is too few” is wrong — it should be “too small” (since a number can be small or large) or “too low” (since a number can be low or high). A number can certainly not be “few”.

    If you refer to the countable objects directly, “few” and “more” are okay. So, “there are many more people than we expected”, but “the number of people is much larger than we expected”.

    In the last paragraph, you’re actively contradicting yourself.

    I think you should retract this entire article and rethink the issue.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Mr. Heckemann, you are absolutely wrong in criticizing the final paragraph, and it is clear that you do not understand the reasoning in English at all.
    Mr. Nichol was stating that when the amounts are money or time, these are exceptions to the usual rules. He said that in the case of money, “The amount of money in the cookie jar has decreased” and “The number of dollar bills in the cookie jar has decreased” are both correct — and this is absolutely true.
    Things like coins and banknotes are treated as countable items:
    “In my pocket I have four dollar bills, three quarters, five dimes, and four nickels, and that is all the money that I have.”
    In contrast, considerable amounts of money can be treated as continuous quatities: “That is an enormous amount of money to spend for one Boeing 787,” and this is also absolutely correct.
    This is just one of the idiomatic items about English.

    When it comes to time, there is the same thing:
    1. Four years is an enormous amount of time to spend in jail to most people.
    2. I only have four days and three hours before I get out of this damned prison.

    Until a person learns how to speak English in the proper idiomatic way, then he/she will always sound like a foreigner.
    Yes, there are some things about English that are just idiomatic and they don’t follow any particular rules, and this holds for French, German, Japanese, and most other languages, too. You just have to learn all of the idiomatic ways of saying things, and the translations cannot be done robotically, such as by a computer.

    In German, the pronoun “man” is always gramatically singular, but in useage it can be either singular or plural depending on the context.
    “Man hat alles gegessen!” means “They have eaten everything up!” in some contexts, but it can mean a singular pronoun in other contexts, and it must be translated thus into English.

  • Dale A. Wood

    So, if you are unwilling to learn the idiomatic ways of saying or writing certain things in English, French, Japanese, etc., you might as well sit there silently.

    Complaining about the idioms that have been in use for hundreds or thousands of years will get you nowhere.

    In Latin, “in media monte” means “halfway up the mountain” regardless of what you might think that the literal translation says.
    (in the middle of the mountain).

  • Baska

    I’m sorry but to offer “the amount of square footage” as an example is just awful! You mean “area”. It seems to me a bad, but increasingly common habit to refer to a quantity by using its unit. “Footage” should be “length”, “poundage” should be “weight” etc. Would you say the “dollarage of the bill” or the “hourage of the train trip”?

    One of the very many advantages of the metric system is that it makes this sort of silliness so obvious that it is not used: “the kilogramage of the parcel”?

  • Rolf Heckemann

    Mr Wood, you are launching into a long-winded explanation that is beside the point that I am making. When one refers to hours, one is dealing with units of time, i.e. countable items. So the example in the last paragraph that refers to an “amount of hours” contradicts what was said in the second paragraph. I have no objection to the examples you are citing. The premise from which you conclude something about my understanding of reasoning in English is wrong.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Mr. Heckemann, once again you do not understand English when to its clear meaning presented right under your nose. You are also outnumbered in that Mr. Nichol and I agree, but nobody agrees with you. Mr. Nichol’s last paragraph is the one that begins with “Two categories of things that are flexible in terms of these usages are money and time:”

    You wrote:
    “In the last paragraph, you’re actively contradicting yourself,”
    and I specifically wrote:
    “Mr. Heckemann, you are absolutely wrong in criticizing the final paragraph.” It is as plain as day what I was writing about. It is also as plain as day that Mr. Nichol was explaining the exceptions to the general rules as they apply to time and money. Those have been documented in many other places:

    Time can be considered to be EITHER a continuous quantity like water, OR it can be considered to be a discrete number of days, hours, minutes, or seconds. This is just the way that English is. The same kind of exception applies to money.

    I won’t discuss it anymore: Mr. Nichol is completely correct, and you do not have any grounds to disagree with him.

    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Baska, I agree with you completely: “the amount of square footage” as an example is just awful! That should never be written or said.

    The correct quantity is “area”, and it always will be.

    In electrical work, there has also been the odious use of the word “amperage”, which is a nonword. There might be a rationale behind using that, but it is not a valid one. Here are the valid electrical quantities and their units:

    electric charge – coulombs
    electric current – amperes
    voltage is also electrical potential – measured in volts
    resistance – ohms
    capacitance – farads
    inductance – henries
    power (not nessarily an electrical quatity) – watts

    These are all invalid quantites: amperage, wattage, ohmage, acreage, footage, yardage, literage, and tonnage. Don’t use them.
    So-called “tonnage” is actually mass.

    In the International System of units, mass is measured in milligrams, grams, kilograms, metric tons (tonnes), and other units based on the kilogram, where the prototype kilogram mass is kept near Paris.

    The American pound is defined by 2.20462234 pounds = one kilogram, exactly, or approximately 453.592 grams = one pound.
    One German (or Danish) Pfund is exactly 500 grams, but the Danish word is a little different.
    D.A.W.

  • Rolf Heckemann

    Mr Wood, thank you for claiming interestingly, albeit erroneously, that this is an issue that can be decided by a vote with a participation of three (not that any poll or vote has taken place, of course). Thanks also for announcing that you won’t discuss the matter any further, which means that I will have the final word. I have pointed out a logical contradiction in the article, so your argument about idiomatic usage is fallacious (a straw man). The logical contradiction I was originally referring to is obvious when you isolate one statement and one example from the final paragraph:

    “One can refer to […] an amount of time or a number of hours.”

    “I need to decrease the amount of hours I’m scheduled to work.”

    I am in full agreement with the statement. The example, however, contradicts the statement in that it refers to an amount of hours, when instead it should refer to a number of hours.

    If you should, in spite of your announcement, decide to respond, please extend me the courtesy of relating to the criticism I have made, rather than to a criticism I haven’t made.

  • John Jennings

    Regarding Mr. Wood vs. Mr. Heckemann . . .
    Like me, I sense that both of you have an active interest, if not a passion, about English grammar. I particularly relish the topic areas that address English’s idiosyncrasies, quirks and gray areas. To me, these qualities serve the dual purposes of one, keeping it interesting and two, allowing separate viewpoints which at once can be both contradictory and valid.

    However, this Amount vs Number topic is not one of those quirky or gray areas. Mr. Heckemann’s observations about the errors and inconsistencies in the article are spot on and well presented.

    In contrast, I find Mr. Wood’s comments and criticisms to be wrong and also unsupported. Further, the tone of Mr. Wood’s comments comes across as bordering on vitriolic, which readers may find bothersome. Curiously, in his comment where he concurs and endorses Baska’s observation, it is a different Mr. Wood, coming across as calm, organized and with proper support for his points.

    I admit that I did not trip over any issues until I found the glaring inconsistency in the final paragraph. At first I thought that perhaps it was a typo. After reading Mr. Heckemann’s observations, I read the article a second time and came to agree that the suggestion to retract the article was appropriate.

  • Damon

    I’m amazed at how often I hear “journalistic professionals” on television make the mistake of referring to an “amount of people”. I should think that people who talk for a living would be required to speak correctly. Perhaps their producers don’t recognize the error, or maybe the news anchors tend to have such fragile egos that no one dares correct them. I just can’t buy the frequently heard “evolving English” argument that repeated usage of incorrect grammar makes it correct by convention.

  • Rony

    I agree with Mr. Heckemann on his statement, “a number
    can be low or high). A number can
    certainly not be “few”. And also on his statement, “that Mr. Wood’s explanation is beside the point.

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