Number vs. Amount: why is it so difficult?

Call me old-fashioned, but…

I’m currently reading a novel – a proper novel, published by a reputable and global publishing company – in which a heinous crime has been committed: an instance of the 21st-century malaise of using ‘amount’ when one should use ‘number’. Who got it wrong? The author in the first place? Or the editor who either corrected an accurate use of language and thought they knew better – or missed an incorrect one? Whichever way round, it’s at the very least lazy and slapdash.

But you hear it all the time, people using ‘amount’ when they wish to suggest a measurable quantity of something – even when it’s the wrong word to use. It reminds me of the use of ‘myself’ versus ‘me’ and the myriad examples where people should say ‘me’ but think it sounds crude or impolite and so they throw in a quick ‘myself’ in order to supposedly elevate what they’re saying: “If you’d like to come back to myself…”

There’s no point looking for fault. You could blame the education system for not drumming into kids the difference between ‘amount’ and ‘number’, but once it’s ‘out in the wild’ then there’s no way it can be contained. Like grey squirrels swamping red squirrels, or French bluebells dominating English bluebells. Not extinction perhaps, but on the verge of becoming endangered?

Maybe I am old-fashioned – after all, I’m the kind of person who gets upset by a misplaced apostrophe, so don’t get me started there! Maybe I just like to see the appropriate word used in the correct context. But as well as infuriate, it saddens me too, this rush-to-the-bottom lowest-common-denominator bastardisation of our wonderful language.

Note: and just in case you don’t know, when you want to signify a quantity of something, if the individual components can be counted then use ‘number’ (‘number’ is essentially a mathematical object); if it can’t be individually counted then it’s ‘amount’ (‘amount’ = “a collection or mass, especially of something that cannot be counted”, Cambridge dictionary).