Countable Nouns: A Handy Writing Tip

There’s something wrong with each of these sentences:
     
     A huge amount of ideas came up in the meeting.
     We can cater for any amount of people.
     They were disappointed with the amount of mistakes in the text.
     The amount of people who came were amazing.

Can you work out what it is? 

If you’re not sure, then read on…. 

We’ll start with the last example – our problem sentence:

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.

The first problem is with the word ‘amount’. Hint: It’s related to countable nouns.

What are countable nouns?

When we use ‘amount’, we mean 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.

‘An amount of’ is used with non-countable nouns, such as ‘mail’, ‘sugar’ or ‘support’, as in these simple examples involving amounts (quantities):

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 when they can be numbered or counted, we can no longer talk about an ‘amount’. Pencils, videos, elephants or – as in the our 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 problem sentence:
The amount of people who came were amazing.

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

The other sentences should read:

A huge number of ideas came up in the meeting.
We can cater for any number of people.
They were disappointed with the number of mistakes in the text.

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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