Make Your Editor Cry: Amount words vs. Number words
Gosh, this is a huge topic. Huge. Massive.
AMOUNT words and NUMBER words and—all the words that fall into their categories—are used to describe how many or how much of something is present.
AMOUNT words relate to quantities of things that are measured in bulk. NUMBER words relate to things that can be individually counted.
Here is the critical distinction. AMOUNT words are used in reference to uncountable nouns (i.e., mass nouns such as love, courage, water, or salt). NUMBER words are used in reference to countable nouns (i.e., individual nouns such as dog, cup, pint, or cookie).
Although NUMBER words and AMOUNT words have similar meanings, NUMBER words are used for things that can be uniquely quantified, while AMOUNT words are used for things that cannot be easily quantified or are measured in bulk. Knowing when to use each is a matter of looking at the noun.
As I said, this is a big topic. It can be tricky, and nearly everyone gets it wrong from time to time, including every last express checkout counter sign in the USA that reads something like, “20 Items or Less” when it should rightly read “20 Items or Fewer.”
I’ll try to keep this simple. To really get this, you have to be able to identify two things. First, you have to be able to identify the difference between a countable noun and an uncountable noun. Second, you need to know which words are NUMBER words and which words are AMOUNT words.
So before we tackle the nouns, here are a few simple charts to help distinguish between these two categories of NUMBER words and AMOUNT words.
AMOUNT (Uncountable) / NUMBER (Countable)
Use AMOUNT words with uncountable nouns. Uncountable nouns, aka mass nouns, represent things that are not easily quantified like feelings such as love and sadness, or liquids such as water and rainfall, or solids like sand on a beach and snow on a mountaintop, or gases like a fogbank and clean air. These things exist as a sort of “mass” that is not easily counted or separated into distinct, individual items.
But wait? What about those so-called uncountable nouns that can, in fact, be counted? Nouns like hair or salt? After all, a very determined nitpicker, I mean, person reading this article could attempt to count the strands of hair on a person’s head or the grains of salt in a shaker. Right?
Right, but not easily. While admittedly possible, the task of counting every grain of sand on a beach or every snowflake atop Everest would defy reasonable quantifiable evaluation and verification. These nouns are much more often thought of as measured in bulk. Therefore, words like “hair” and “salt” are considered uncountable nouns—but people are always considered countable nouns. I’ll get to that.
Use NUMBER words with countable nouns. Countable nouns are easily broken down into individuals, individual units, or individual items. These are nouns like teachers, soldiers, fireman, cities, counties, countries, cups, cookies, and books.
Examples of Amount / Number:
A well-done research report might include information on the number of participants in the study, the number of questionnaires that were completed, the amount of time allocated for a test, or the amount of evidence found.
Much / Many
If whatever is being considered is being measured in bulk or in uncountable units, then use the AMOUNT word much. If whatever is being considered is being measured in countable units, then use the NUMBER word many.
You shouldn’t drink too much bourbon, and you should also avoid drinking too many glasses of bourbon.
Note that in the first part of the example sentence, you are considering the AMOUNT of bourbon in bulk so we use the AMOUNT word much. But in the second part you are counting the NUMBER of glasses (units) of bourbon so we use the NUMBER word many.
Bottom line: Use much if the noun is uncountable (e.g., bourbon, profit, milk, fun). Use many if the noun is countable (e.g., glasses, friends, houses, students).
More Examples for Much / Many:
We didn’t earn much profit this year.
This cereal doesn’t need much milk.
We had so much fun at the party.
Natasha doesn’t have many friends.
Boris owns many houses.
There are too many students in this class.
Got it? Great. So we covered amount / number and much / many pretty well. Here are some examples of each remaining word pair.
Fewer / Less
Fewer is a NUMBER word that means “not as many.” You use fewer with countable nouns like a cup or a cookie. Less is an AMOUNT word that means “not as much.” So you use less with uncountable nouns like sugar or milk.
Example of Fewer / Less:
You can eat fewer cookies and drink less milk.
So, cookie is a countable noun. It is possible to count a cookie (singular) or multiple cookies (plural). Milk, on the other hand, is an uncountable noun. It is a liquid that we measure in terms of bulk volume. You cannot count singular milk nor multiple plural milks because milk isn’t really singular and milks isn’t really a thing.
TIP: As I just demonstrated, a good way to test whether a singular noun is countable or uncountable is to try making a plural out of it.
Again, this can be really tricky so it’s probably best to look at more sentences and uses.
More Examples of Fewer / Less:
As the days passed, the rose had fewer petals left on it.
If fewer people used disposable bottles, there would be less plastic in landfills.
Gregg makes fewer grammatical mistakes than the average person because he reads less than the masses.
Molly has been drinking less water than she should on this dry day.
My new furniture leaves me with less space for yoga practice.
In these examples, petals, people, and grammatical mistakes are all countable nouns. As difficult as it would be to count all the people who use plastic water bottles, it would be possible to enumerate them because people are individuals, and recall that with individual human beings you should just bite the bullet and use NUMBER words (I promise, I’m getting there).
However, plastic, masses, water, and space are uncountable, so you use AMOUNT words. Even though “the masses” refers to people, in this context it refers literally to a mass, so it is uncountable. To make these countable, we would need to compartmentalize or individualize them into countable units in some way like we did with bulk bourbon vs. glasses of bourbon.
Uncountable nouns that can be further defined and measured in this way can also make the distinction trickier.
Still More Examples of Fewer / Less:
I use far less gasoline each month since I bought my plug-in hybrid electric Ford Fusion Titanium Energi.
I use far fewer gallons of gasoline each month since I bought my plug-in hybrid electric Ford Fusion Titanium Energi.
Remember when I was talking about uncountable AMOUNT of bourbon in bulk and the countable NUMBER of glasses of bourbon? In the first example here, I am talking about the AMOUNT of gasoline. In the second example, I am talking about the NUMBER of gallons of gasoline.
More / More
Just to confuse things even more (see what I did there?), the word more can be used either way. That’s because in English, we use the exact same word, more, to represent either a greater NUMBER or a greater AMOUNT.
You can eat more cookies and drink more milk.
You shouldn’t drink more bourbon, and you should also avoid drinking any more glasses of bourbon.
Few / Little
Little refers to uncountable nouns (e.g., sugar, use, chance) and is used with the singular form to indicate that something exists only in a small amount or to a slight degree. Few refers to countable nouns (e.g., friends, people, problems)-, and is used with the plural form to indicate not many persons or things.
Examples for Few / Little
I’ve got little sugar left in my pantry.
He’s so angry, there’s little use in talking to him.
There’s little chance of snow for the next few days.
Natasha has few friends in Washington.
Few people stopped to listen to the politician on his soapbox.
Even though the car is old, I actually have few problems with it.
Quantity of / Number of
Use quantity of for singular or plural nouns that can be counted or measured in bulk, particularly if it’s inanimate. Use number of when referring to singular or plural nouns that can be individually counted.
Chef Smith always stored a large quantity of sugar.
Chef Smith always stored a large number of sealed bags of sugar.
It would take a large quantity of ice cream to make her feel better.
It would take a large number of ice cream pint containers to make her feel better.
The Problem with People
Probably the most common mistake with AMOUNT and NUMBER words is to refer to an AMOUNT of people instead of a NUMBER of people. Because the noun person can be counted, the phrase amount of people is considered incorrect. This is because people, persons, or individual human beings are hypothetically always countable nouns.
Look at this in action. You cannot say “the home team has less players than the visiting team,” but the home team can “have fewer players than the visiting team.” It would also be correct to say “the visitors have more players.”
Bottom line, it’s always safer to use NUMBER words in situations related to people, persons, or individual human beings.
But wait! While it’s supposedly the rule, the distinction tends to weaken when discussing vast numbers of people, because then we tend to think of people in bulk. Discussing the AMOUNT of people on a small countable sports team would instantly ring a sour note to the ears of careful English speakers, but the AMOUNT of people, say, in China or India might not sound so terribly off-key to most folks—although learned English speakers would still consider it an error and they would be dead right.
The solution? Basically, do the opposite of when we broke down uncountable nouns into countable units. Convert the countable units (people, persons, or individual human beings) into an uncountable mass noun.
So, when discussing the armies of people in China or the crowds of people in India, or when asking other countries to “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” we have now converted the hypothetically countable individual noun “people, persons, or individual human beings” to the uncountable mass noun “armies, crowds, masses” so now we can safely use AMOUNT words.
Okay, now that all that information is SO perfectly clear and easily understood, here’s another curve ball or three. More exceptions to the NUMBER word fewer and AMOUNT word less pattern are references to units of time, weight, percentages, and nearly anything related to money.
It is customary to use the AMOUNT word less with regard to time, even though we can count time in seconds, minutes, hours, and so on.
Boris had worked there for less than five years.
I wish I could spend less time on Facebook and more time writing my novel.
However, depending on how general or specific your reference to time is, it may require the use of the NUMBER word fewer.
After less than five years, Boris had worked fewer total Mondays than Sundays.
I wish I could spend fewer hours each day on Facebook and more time writing my novel.
Weights are also nouns that are measured in a countable way, yet are customarily used with the AMOUNT word less rather than the NUMBER word fewer
While adult elephants can weigh in at over 13,000 pounds and stand more than 10 feet tall, newborn elephants often weigh less than 200 pounds and stand about 3 feet tall.
Even though the baby elephant’s weight is countable (and I did count it! in pounds, even!), it would read as awkward to write it, “Newborn elephant’s often weigh fewer than 200 pounds…”
Determining whether percentages represent something countable or uncountable can be very tricky. To decide whether to use the NUMBER word fewer or the AMOUNT word less with a percentage, you have to back up and look at the usage.
What is this a percentage of? Is that thing that this is a “percentage of” countable or uncountable? The correct answer determines the correct AMOUNT or NUMBER word to use.
Statistically speaking, fewer than twenty percent of the world’s people are left-handed.
He drank less than five percent of his bourbon.
Although counting the world’s people would be an unenviable task, recall that with “people, persons, or individual human beings” it is always safer to use the NUMBER words. It is possible to count individual people and purists know the difference. Therefore, twenty percent of the world’s “people” is countable and you have to use the NUMBER word fewer.
However, a liquid like bourbon is an uncountable noun—like milk, coffee, tea, or water. Therefore, we use the AMOUNT word less. We could also say someone ate less than 10% of his oatmeal or used up less than 20% of your hot water.
Although we can—and often do—count money, just like with weight it is quite normal to think of money as a bulk quantity rather than an aggregate of quantifiable currency units. Therefore, we use the AMOUNT word less rather than the NUMBER word fewer.
Every single item in the bargain bin was marked less than five dollars.
Understand that it would be completely correct to write, “Every item in the bargain bin was marked fewer than five dollars,” but that would sound awkward and read as unexpected to your audience.
Sidebar: I personally believe that the sale signs in stores related to money that read as similar to “twenty-dollars or less” or “less than five dollars” etc., are a contributing factor as to why those very same stores get the express lane signs that read “20 items or less” dead wrong. Now back to the article.
Only when referring to specific coins or bills would you ever commonly use the NUMBER word fewer instead of the AMOUNT word less.
I have fewer than five Morgan silver dollars in my coin collection.
I gave away fewer than ten of my remaining two dollar bills.
At the outset, I said this was a gigantic topic. I made an effort limit the NUMBER of words I used so as not to use up too great an AMOUNT of space. I see that I didn’t really hit the mark, but hopefully this article helps you make fewer mistakes and write more accurately and effectively in the future in your many stories to come.
Gregg Bridgeman is the Editor-in-Chief at Olivia Kimbrell Press. He is husband to best-selling Christian author Hallee Bridgeman and parent to three. He continues to proudly serve in the US Armed Forces and has done so in either an active or reserve capacity for more than twenty years as an airborne and air assault qualified paratrooper, earning a Bronze Star for his service. Most importantly, he was ordained in October of 2001 after surrendering his life to Christ decades earlier.