Commonly Confused: number/amount

May 30, 2006

There is a difference between the proper usage of “number” and “amount.” If something can be counted, use “number” and the related number terms (“few,” “many,” etc.); if something cannot be counted, use “amount” and the related amount terms (“little,” “much,” etc.).

Countable nouns are easy to spot: one cookie, two cookies, three cookies; one class, two classes, three classes; one chair, two chairs, three chairs.

Try counting uncountable nouns: one rice, two rices, three rices? No! One mathematics, two mathematics, three mathematics? No! One furniture, two furnitures, three furnitures? No!

This table lists the terms that are associated with countable nouns (number terms) and uncountable nouns (amount terms), as well as terms that can be used with both countable and uncountable nouns:

number amount both
  • many
  • both
  • several
  • few/fewer/fewest
  • a few
  • one of the
  • a couple of
  • much
  • less
  • little
  • a little
  • very little
  • some
  • any
  • most
  • more
  • all
  • a lot of
  • no
  • none of the

Notice that the terms that can be used with both countable and uncountable nouns include the indefinite pronouns that can be either singular or plural (mnemonic = SAMAN).

Let’s look at some examples of the usage of these terms.

I have many CDs, but I have less music than my brother has.

CDs are countable (one CD, two CDs, three CDs) but music is uncountable (one music? two musics? three musics? No!). Use “many” with a countable noun and “less” with an uncountable noun.

I had too much ice cream and very little milk. I had several cookies. Now I want some coffee. Hey, someone ate all the hamburgers!

“Ice cream” and “milk” are uncountable (Two ice creams? Three milks? These are colloquial and they sound awkward.) “Much” and “very little” are amount terms to be used with uncountable nouns. “Cookies” are countable, and “several” is a number term to be used with countable nouns. “Some” and “all” are terms that can be used with both countable and uncountable nouns. “Coffee” is uncountable; “hamburgers” are countable.

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