The amount of numbers is very great

Ken writes:

This post won’t go down well among the members of the society for the preservation of grammatical distinctions.

I have always been one of those people who mentally corrects supermarket express lane signage to e.g. ’10 items or fewer’ to respect the distinction between countable and uncountable quantities. (For things like items that can be counted, we are supposed to say ‘or fewer’; only for quantities that are measured, mass terms, should we say ‘or less’).

The distinction also dictates whether we should use ‘number’ or ‘amount’ to give the quantity of countable or uncountable quantities respectively. So it’s the number of children in the sand pit, for instance, but the amount of sand. The distinction is, of course, routinely flouted. I believe I respect it in my own usage, but I’ve basically given up on expecting others to do so.

It occurred to me today that perhaps using ‘amount’ for countables as well as uncountables has this to say for it: It fails to draw one distinction, but perhaps it makes it easier to draw another.

Standard English gives the word ‘number’ at least two different jobs. It’s used to refer to certain abstract concepts, as in the number two, pi etc, and to the quantity of a group of things, or indeed the amount of them (in the deprecated sense). Now, I know these are different senses because German distinguishes them. The Germans speak of eine Zahl but also of eine Anzahl. If you wanted to know how many people were in the elevator, a German would answer not with their Zahl, but their Anzahl. (As it happens, they would answer the same way in any case becasue the words ‘eins, zwei, drei, etc’ ambiguously stand for both Zahlen and Anzahlen, but it isn’t difficult to imagine a language that had separate words for the different uses. English has separate words for ordinal and cardinal numbers for example).

The great song by Three Dog Night, ‘One is the Loneliest Number‘ exploits the systematic ambiguity in English. The line “Two can be as bad as one. It’s the loneliest number since the number one” trades on being ambiguous between the abstract and the Anzahl sense of of ‘number’ (between ‘two’ and ‘two of them’). To get the implication that it can be lonely being part of a couple, you need to take ‘number’ to mean not an abstract object, but the ‘amount’ of people.

To summarise, the ignorant use of ‘amount’ flouts one distinction but facilitates drawing another, that between numbers and amounts. So maybe the ignorant use isn’t so bad after all.

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