Some Confusion

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A reader wrote to say, very interestingly, that it seems to him that the distinction between Number and amount is currently being lost and that speakers are increasingly using amount in expressions like “the number of people attending the game” rather than “the number of people”.

I think I would be inclined to use here myself, reserving myself amount for singular nouns, as in “the amount of beer drunk at the game”, although it is not always easy to know for sure what one normally says.

But our reader also states that he was taught at school that Number is used for countable items, such as oranges, while amount is used for uncountable things, like water. The fact that he was taught this in school makes me uncomfortable. Native speakers don’t need to learn the real rules of their own language: any rule that needs to be openly taught isn’t really a rule (eg “don’t end a sentence with a preposition”).


And although no English speaker would ever say “the number (rather than the quantity) of water”, it is very easy to find – in the Oxford English Dictionary eg – clear examples of amount used with plurals in violation of this so-called “rule”. And this is not a recent phenomenon. Samuel Johnson, author of English language dictionary, wrote in 1751: “If we knew the number of moments”. And there are many other examples, like this one from 1884: “The observations are relatively few, compared to the number of cases in the hospital.

Our correspondent wonders “what is going on? but the answer may be “nothing”, although we need to check large amounts (or numbers!) of data and do some counting to be sure.

The same remark can be made about less of and less. There is a similar “rule” here: lessAs amountshould apply – some think – only to singular nouns, while less ofAs Numberapplies to plurals: less cheese, less time, less money; but fewer cookies, fewer minutes, fewer coins.

In fact, however, millions of people actually say “less cookies, less drinks”, and the evidence shows that English speakers have always done
this, since the days of King Alfred. Again, the WD has many examples, like this one from 1580: “I think there are few universities
which have fewer faults than Oxford, many which have more”.

The “less-less rule” was invented in the late 18th century by someone who probably had nothing better to fear. The way that the
“rule” is presented shows that the use of less of versus less is supposed to be a
purely automatic consequence of the fact that these words modify the plural or
singular names. And if an alternation is totally automatic, then it is useless:
it does no work and has no meaning. After all, what is the opposite of less cheese? More cheese. The opposite of fewer people is more people.

Whether After works perfectly fine for singular and plural, so less can do the same job, and we don’t need the word less of in these contexts. And so it is Number oranges against amount of fruits. “Amount of oranges” has been with us for centuries and will no doubt continue to be.

WOULD HAVE

Samuel Johnson’s phrase “if we only knew” illustrates the changing role of
will be and its form in the past tense would be over the centuries. The verb will be originally
simply meant “to want”, but this element of meaning has increasingly been
lost, so 270 years after Johnson, we are now more inclined to write “if we wanted to know”.


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