Students of English are often confused about the difference between the words amount and number. How do you know when to use each one?
Both amount and number are nouns that refer to the quantity of something. Both words can also be used as verbs that mean "to be a certain quantity" or "to add up to." Although they are similar, the two words are not interchangeable.
They are used in completely different contexts and, for English speakers, the distinction is very clear. It is important to learn the difference between amount and number, both as nouns and as verbs, because if you mix them up it's considered quite a basic mistake.
Let's look at some examples to help you understand the difference.
When it is a noun, the word amount is used with two types of words. First, we use amount with things we can't count (or do not usually count). For example, we cannot count water, flour, snow or rain, and we do not usually count rice or hair. For this reason, we describe an amount of water, an amount of flour, an amount of rice, etc.
Keep in mind that the concept of counting these things is different from the concept of measuring these things. We can measure flour, but we cannot say "one flour, two flour, three flour…" This means that flour cannot be counted. Similarly, we cannot count money and time. We can count dollars, euros, pounds, and other types of money, but we cannot say "one money, two money, three money…"Therefore, we speak about an amount of money and an amount of time.
Besides uncountable nouns, amount is used with abstract concepts. We speak about the amount of love people feel for each other, the amount of pride and the amount of frustration, noise, work and other ideas and emotions.
When used as a noun, the word number refers to a quantity of something that can be counted. Examples of things we can count are people, apples, mobile phones, photographs, jobs and animals.
For this reason, we speak about a number of people, a number of apples, a number of mobile phones, etc. Note that although we speak about an amount of time, we speak about a number of times (as in once, twice, three times…) This is because "time" can be both a countable and uncountable noun.
Sometimes people use the expression "a number of" when they want to avoid being specific about the quantity in question. In this case, the expression means "some" or "several." When using the expression "a number of," the noun that follows number will always be plural.
Similarly, when this noun is followed by a verb, the plural form of the verb should be used. For example, we say, "a number of apples in the bowl are green," not "a number of apples in the bowl is green."
Similar to amount, when it is a noun the word number is followed by "of."
When number is a verb, it is generally used to speak about large, approximate numbers, particularly crowds of people. For example, we could say, "The crowd numbered in the tens of thousands" or "The protesters numbered in the hundreds."
In this case, the verb number is followed by "in." When we speak about an exact number, or a number about which we have more certainty, "in" is not necessary. For this reason we say, "The population of England numbers 53.1 million people." (Not "numbers in 53.1 million people.")
After both amount and number, it is not necessary to use the word "the." For example, you would say, "I am happy about the amount of money in my piggybank." (Not, "I am happy about the amount of the money in my piggybank.")
For both countable and uncountable nouns, it is possible to use quantity instead of amount or number. For example, we could say, "Due to the snowstorm, there is an enormous quantity of snow on the street." We could also say, "Only tiny quantity of people passed the exam." Keep in mind that quantity is more formal than amount and number.
Jenny has been at her job for a number of years. She was very happy working for her company at first, but these days there are a number of reasons why she isn't satisfied. First, the amount of time she spends at the office has been increasing. This is because the number of people in her department has decreased. (Fewer people to do things amounts to more work for everyone!)
Second, Jenny is under an incredible amount of pressure. Last month, she stayed late on a number of evenings just to get things done. Finally, she has had a number of arguments with her boss. Jenny is beginning to feel that the amount of money she earns is actually quite small.
Jenny is exploring a number of other options. She is considering setting up her own company. Doing so would involve a considerable amount of work, but it would probably be more enjoyable than her current situation. Another idea is to go back to school.
Tuition fees would amount to quite a lot of money, but the cost would probably be worth it. Finally, Jenny is thinking about taking some time off to travel. She thinks a vacation will help her deal with the enormous amount of stress she has been experiencing.
Jenny has been caught daydreaming about this last idea on a number of occasions. In fact, the number of hours she has spent daydreaming probably number in the hundreds! She mostly imagines lying on a hammock in the Caribbean, or going on a safari. It depends on the day! She has an endless amount of ideas about how to spend her free time.
Answer the following 10 questions and then check your answers. Each question is worth 10 points.
Part 1: 1. C | 2. B | 3. A | 4. D
Part 2: 1. C | 2. D
Part 3: 1. B | 2. A | 3. B | 4. C