Monday, March 14, 2011

"amount of people employed as an architect"

I keep collecting and posting (for example) interesting (or odd) google search terms that get people to this blog and I have a list to post before long. But this query is really a grammatical point too long to talk about in one of my google search posts.

Amount versus Number

"amount of people employed as an architect"

I'm not sure how aware I was of this misuse of 'amount' before I went to Thailand, but in Thailand I learned what the problem is. In Thai, you don't do something like add an 's' at the end of the word to indicate more than one. Instead you use a classifier. So, you say
  • "man, two people,"  
  • "car, four vehicles," or 
  • "chair, two things-with-legs." 
Every noun has a classifier appropriate to that noun.  Usually a variety of things use the same classifier.  Tables, chairs, animals, are all in the class of things-with-legs.  But NOT people who have their own class. (Chinese has a similar way of making plurals.)

I realize that sounds totally weird to people used to adding an 's.' But we actually do the same thing in English for mass nouns. Some examples:

  • I want five gallons of gas. (Not five gasses)
  • Two cups of coffee please. (Though people say "two coffees," this is really short for "two cups of coffees" and not two beans or two pounds of coffee.)
  • Three pounds of beef.
  • We talk about dollars and cents, not monies.
  • We can talk about three days of bliss, but not three blisses.

Count Nouns and Mass Nouns

The key is a distinction between 'count nouns' and 'mass nouns.' Like the term suggests, count nouns are things you can count - birds, books, noses, toes, bikes, songs.

Mass nouns are things that aren't individually separable: water, humanity, time, distance, rice, music, mail.  You have to use another word - a classifier - to indicate amounts of these things.  Some, like humanity, I can't think of any classifiers for, just vague descriptions like 'a lot of' (which, we can use for mass AND count nouns.)
So, 'people' is a count noun.  We can count people.  There is one person, two people, three people, etc.  Amount is used for mass nouns:  amount of rice, amount of space, amount of depression, amount of money, amount of mail.  To indicate a specific amount we have to use a classifier:
  • two sacks (or bowls or grains) of rice
  • 1500 square feet of space
  • several bouts of depression
  • forty Euros
  • in two hours 
  • seven pieces of mail or five letters and two magazines.  

For count nouns, we don't usually say 'amount.'  We say
  • The number of people employed as architects.
  • The number of books in the library.  
  • The number of bikes sold in May.  
All these things that can be counted and we can determine a number for them.  This isn't true of mass nouns.
For mass nouns, we ask, "How much?"  We want to know the amount.
  • $5
  • ten gallons 
  • 21 lbs. in three months
  • a pinch
We have some specific words for 'how much?' in certain situations:
  • How far?  
  • How long?  
  • How high?

For count nouns, we ask "How many?"  We want to know the number.

So, if we say 'amount of people,' we're implying an amount of something that is not countable by itself, like rice or water or beef.  We use a classifier, some unit of measure for that noun.  It would be as if the person were asking about a mass of indistinguishable people:  How many busloads of people?  How many pounds of people?  How many acres of people?

I suspect the searcher was looking for a number.

This is not intended as a rant, but rather as a clarification.  I appreciate grammatical creativity. I'm less amused by grammatical laziness.   Grammar can sometimes seem unnecessarily complicated.  But the words and grammar have their own meanings embedded.  Sometimes they are redundant.  But when the speaker and the listener both understand the nuances of the grammar and use it correctly, the redundancy acts as a confirmation of the speaker's intent.  Meaning is more precise and there is less misunderstanding.


  1. Another reminder why as a teenage learner of Spanish, German and Afrikaans, I hit the wall of grammar and syntax early and often when it came to opening my mouth.

    A Belgian friend says his wife has 'bumps on her head' for languages. I certainly don't yet I find languages infinitely interesting -- as deep as maths and as rewarding to study.

    Finally, perhaps I should take this off line, but I've wanted to ask: did you speak German at home as a child? My father grew up in a German/English speaking household but only read in German as an adult.

    Now living in the EU it would be wonderful to have use of the language. Perhaps after I'm done with studies I'll give it another go as my nephew and wife now live in Vienna.

  2. This is one of my pet peeves too.

    Technically we NEVER say "amount" for what you call count nouns. we always say "number."

    Are you also unhappy about the misuse of "fewer" and less"? It's another grammatical mistake that comes from failure to understand the distinction between mass and count. So I have less money than you do, but perhaps you have fewer ten-dollar bills. Less time, fewer hours in the day. Less food, fewer bananas. Less stuff, fewer boxes of it.

  3. Jay, no, I didn't speak German at home, though my parents did when they didn't want me to understand.

    Kathy, life is too short to get upset about stuff like this. Languages evolve. Or erode. Like good tools, if the language isn't maintained, it doesn't work as well. But I'd like to think while somethings get lost, others are gained. Anyway, thanks for adding the fewer/less distinction. I should have included it originally. I just didn't think of it.


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