Countable Nouns: A Handy Writing Tip

Can you see what’s wrong with this sentence? Hint: It’s related to countable nouns.
The amount of people who came were amazing.

In fact, there are three problems in the sentence: two errors and a point that’s open to debate. We’ll tackle them one by one.

What are countable nouns?

The first problem is with the word ‘amount’.

When we use ‘amount’, we refer to a quantity that’s undefined. It can be described – as ‘large’, ‘small’ or ‘unexpected’ – but we don’t usually consider its individual parts, if it has them.

A few simple examples involving amounts (quantities) are:

She found a large amount of mail on her desk.
We used a small amount of sugar in the experiment.
Last month there was an unexpected amount of support.

When nouns are plural, or can be numbered or counted, we can no longer talk about an ‘amount’. Pencils, videos, elephants or – as in the problem sentence above – ‘people’ can be counted or considered individually. They are countable nouns. And before these nouns, we use ‘a number of…’

Examples involving countable nouns are:


She found a large number of bills on her desk.
We used a number of grains of sugar in the experiment.
Last month there was an unexpected number of new supporters
.

We don’t need to know the exact number, but ‘bills’, ‘grains’ and ‘supporters’ are countable, unlike ‘mail’, ‘sugar’ and ‘support’.

Now back to the original example:
The amount of people who came were amazing.

In this case, ‘amount’ is incorrect. The sentence should begin, of course, with:
The number of people ….

That’s the first problem fixed.

But what about the second? We’re moving away from ‘countable nouns’ now, but read on….

It’s about subject-verb agreement

What we have now is:
The number of people who came were amazing.

Problem: the ‘people’ aren’t amazing – well, they might be, but that’s not what the sentence is trying to say.

‘The number’ is amazing, and ‘number’ is a singular noun, so the verb has to be singular too. The sentence should read:
The number of people … was amazing.

Now for the third problem…

The tricky bit – still not about countable nouns

We have to decide whether to say:
The number of people who came was amazing. OR
The number of people that came was amazing
.

This is where it gets more complicated and some of you will start to glaze over. That’s OK. That’s what editors are for.
If you want to read more, it’s explained below. If that’s enough for you for one day, move on to the next tip.

‘Who’ or ‘that’?

Should it be ‘who’ or ‘that’? Well it depends….

In this case, I believe there’s a slightly better argument for saying:
The number of people that came was amazing.

The reason for the choice gets a bit complicated.

The main idea in the sentence, and the thing that is ‘amazing’, is the ‘number’. If we reduce the sentence to its basics, and still retain the main point, we would say:
The number that came was amazing.

Some might choose to use the word ‘who’:
The number of people who came was amazing.

Even though the number is still amazing, this example shifts the subject of the verb ‘came’. Instead of focusing on the ‘number that came’, it puts the emphasis on the ‘people who came’, as opposed to those who stayed away.

You would probably need more context to be absolutely sure but, if that is the writer’s intention, then ‘who’ would be the better option.

The truth is, there’s a very fine distinction between the two.

In the end, that’s the point of writing, editing and correcting language: to analyse intended meaning and to consider sentences in their full context.

Whew!

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