Wrestling with grammar: A numbers game and more

Published 12:15 am Sunday, August 21, 2016

By Bill Ward

Special to the Salisbury Post

In my last column, we should have straightened out any confusion concerning the use of “its” and “it’s,” as well as the application of other contractions. I was surprised at the number of people who have trouble with the “it” word-forms.

I have received inquiries about other parts of speech that some readers occasionally find troublesome. First, let’s consider the words “number” and “amount.” But before we get started, I want to mention a recent experience with these words. I decided to check reference sources to make sure I would be thinking and writing in the best direction with these two words. I checked some sites on the internet, and frankly, I could not believe what I saw.

In separate instances, two respondents got into such a — let’s say, “vigorous” — written debate about the use of these words, as the website host had described them, that if their arguments had occurred in person, they might have entered into mortal combat. Upon reading some of these back-and-forth responses, I thought, “Hey folks, this concerns the use of two simple words in the English language, not integral or differential calculus.”

You will use the words “number” and “amount” to describe different situations. Use “number” with things you can count (called count nouns). Use “amount” with things you can’t count (called mass nouns).

For example, you can count tomatoes, making “tomatoes” a count noun. So, you would use the word “number” to go with them. Example: The “number of” tomatoes in the basket is 25.

But, a level of certain emotions or senses can’t be counted, since something such as “taste,” listed under one of those headings, is a mass noun. Example: Those tomatoes have the greatest “amount of” flavor.

Mary counted the “number of” apples in the bag.

Mary measured the “amount of” applesauce she needed for the recipe.

Because Mary can count the individual apples, we use “number of.” But she can’t count the tiny particles of apples in the applesauce, so we use “amount of.”

Test your skill

Check your understanding of these words by filling in the blanks with “number” or “amount:”

(1) Dad feels proud about the ________ of cups in his collection.

(2) John wondered about the _________ of speeding tickets he could get before losing his license.

(3) Mary was alarmed at the _________ of violence on her street.

4. Jack wants to know the _________ of marbles he can fit in his mouth.

5. They walked out of class to protest the _________ of preference given to athletes.

6. Jane underestimated the __________ of work it takes to be a marine biologist.

Quantity of

Use the term “quantity” with singular or plural objects that you can measure, such as, countable nouns. This is usually applied to inanimate objects.

(You may find an older grammar reference that insists that “quantity of” can only precede a singular word. This style is considered outdated today.)

EXAMPLE: I took control of a large “quantity of” money. (Money is singular and can be measured or counted.)

Bill Ward is an MIT-trained technical writer-editor who has taught technical writing and editing for adult professionals at Queens University in Charlotte.

Contact him at wardwriters@carolina.rr.com.