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Amount vs. number

Amount is used in reference to mass nouns (i.e., uncountable nouns such as bravery, water, and charisma). Number is used in reference to count nouns (i.e., countable nouns such as dog, year, and eyeball).

For example, because the noun person can be counted, the phrase amount of people might be considered incorrect. The distinction tends to weaken, however, when we’re talking about great numbers. The amount of people in the room would sound wrong to many careful speakers of English, while the amount of people in China would not seem so glaringly wrong (though many English-speakers would still consider it questionable). In any case, it’s always safer to use number in situations like this.


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Examples

Scientists have long noted that just about any event that shifts a large amount of mass from one part of the planet to another will have a tiny—and sometimes measurable—effect on the Earth’s rotation. [Wall Street Journal]

Worldwide, the number of shark attacks has grown each decade, hitting 646 in the 2000s. [Christian Science Monitor]

The number of students and graduates complaining about the handling of their loans has soared in recent years . . . [Independent]

Chretien stayed alive by eating nothing but a small amount of trail mix and melted snow. [CTV]

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Comments

  1. If you are referring to rain, and you are looking at a graph, should you say the number of inches that have fallen? I am a teacher, and as I teach the children to read and interpret graphs, I want to be sure I am speaking correctly. I know rain is usually referred to in terms of amount, but if it has been measured in inches, should I refer to the number of inches of rain?

    • I would say that those are two different things. “The number of inches of rain have fallen” and “There is a large amount of rain” both sound correct to me. “Inches of rain” is a measurement and “rain” is a mass noun, so I’d think of those as two very different cases.

    • I think your usage is perfect, Lesley. There is an amount of rain, not a number of rains, (in the sense you are using), so rain is a mass noun not a count noun – rain is measured, not counted. But to measure it, you have to use some arbitrary unit (in this case “inches”) , so that that amount corresponds to the number 1, twice that amount corresponds to the number 2, and half that amount corresponds to the number 0.5, etc. Once you have done the measuring, you have a number of inches of rain.

      Admittedly, that number probably won’t be one of the “natural numbers” or “counting numbers”, 0,1,2,3,4…. . It will one of the “real numbers” or “measuring numbers”, which include decimals like 0.713521 or 3.14159265359…

      But it’s still a number of inches, so you are quite correct.

    • When you say “number of inches of rain”, the noun being quantified has switched from rain to inches. Since inches are countable, you use number…you say “amount of rain”, “number of inches (of rain)”.

  2. I’d be quite unhappy about “the amount of people in China” as an alternative to “the number of people in China”. For me, “amount of people” would only be acceptable if it really was measurement rather than counting that was relevant. For instance, an accident report might conclude that a boat capsized because of the amount of people who rushed to one side to see some spectacle. The number of people would be irrelevant; it’s their combined weight that matters.

    • Even then, you probably wouldn’t describe that shifting of weight as the “amount of people” that shifted. If you were talking in terms of people, you should probably still refer to the number of people with the implied weight therein, and if you were talking about the weight, or mass, or volume (measurable nouns) that shifted, you’d say amount of weight. If you wanted to use “number of” for some odd reason, you’d use a discrete quantifiable noun that pertained to weight like the “number of pounds” shifting from port to starboard. The two arguments that I’ve heard for any use of “amount of people” is if they’ve been ground up or something so that the “people” are no longer quantifiable (Soylent Green is people! What is the amount of people in the recipe?), or in cases where the number of people is so large as to make them essentially uncountable, and I remain confident that even if there are millions or billions of people, since they are still quantifiable, they are still a number of people, not an amount. Oh, and the soylent green argument is only as correct as it’s grammatically correct to describe some matter that is made FROM people as people. People isn’t generally used to describe anything other than the whole, discrete, plural, countable form. It would be more appropriate for you, in such a case, describe the content of the recipe, gross as this might be, as “three pounds of people meat”, which is actually then describing “pounds of meat” which changes the effective noun. Otherwise, you’re still talking about the “number of people” they use per batch. People is really no longer an apt descriptor in its…reduced form. Eew.

      • I think I agree with everything you say. I wasn’t actually advocating using “amount of people” in the accident report; I was just saying that that was the only situation I could think of where the phrase was even marginally defensible.

        Cheers, Ken

    • Only if they shifted in Soylent Green form.

  3. What about “money”? I often hear people say “amount of money.” According to this rule, it should be “number of money”, since “money” is countable, right? Please support your answer with specific examples. Thank you!

    • Stewart Ware says:

      No, money is only countable in the units of the particular currency you are using, so you would refer to a number of dollars or pounds. When you are not referring to a currency you would use amount.

      “A large amount of money was spent.”

      “I don’t know the number of dollars in your wallet.”

      Normally the phrases “number of dollars” or “number of pounds” only arise when you are referring to physical coins or notes, as in puzzles like this:

      Bob has 10 pockets and 44 silver dollars. He wants to put his dollars into his pockets so distributed that each pocket contains a different number of dollars. Can he do that?

      When talking in general about quantities of money, the term “much” is often used.

      “I don’t know how much money was spent.”

      “How much did you spend? Not much, I bet.”

      • Stewart Gordon says:

        You could just as well talk of a “number of pounds” when referring to a sum of money, to indicate either
        (a) how much is it, as measured in pounds?
        (b) if you have £3.50 + $2 in your wallet, then 3.5 is the number of pounds you have
        though admittedly it’s an uncommon use.

        But as a result, if the puzzle simply said “44 dollars” then it would be unsolvable without more information (the breakdown of the sum of money into notes/coins) for a solution. But a “silver dollar” is obviously a coin, thereby resolving the ambiguity.

  4. Stewart Gordon says:

    amount vs. number
    less vs. fewer
    much vs. many

    It’s the same difference in all three cases. (I.e. within each pair, the two words differ in the same way – not the common misuse of that phrase!)

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