Countables: An Important Writing Tip:

Writing Tips: Countables

Can you see what’s wrong with this sentence? Hint: it’s mainly about countables. 

The amount of people who came were amazing.

In fact, there are three problems: two outright errors and one point that’s open to debate.

Countables do count!

The first problem is with the word ‘amount’.

When we use ‘amount we refer to a quantity that’s undefined, even though it can be described (large, small, unusual etc.) and we don’t usually consider its individual parts – if it has them.

We can’t talk about an amount of people, or of pencils, videos, or elephants. These words are ‘countables’. For things that can be ‘counted’ or considered individually, we use ‘a number of…’

Simple examples involving quantities are:

She found a large amount of mail on her desk
We used a small amount of sugar
Last month there was an unusual amount of support

Examples involving countables 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 unusual number of new supporters

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

Now back to the 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?

It’s about subject-verb agreement

The people aren’t amazingwell, they might be, but that’s not what the sentence says.

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

Now for the third problem…

The tricky bit

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 tricky and many people 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.

Even tighter writing

For those who are still reading…

Should it be ‘who’ or ‘that’?

Either word is usually OK to use when referring to people, and there are different opinions about which is better.

When referring to things, or objects, it’s usually better to use ‘that’ (or ‘which’, but that’s a story for another day)

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 word ‘amazing is the key. What exactly was ‘amazing’? The ‘number … that came’ is the most important idea in the sentence, and that’s the reason for the amazement.

The extra words, ‘of people‘, just give us more information, and can be left out while we make this decision.

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 puts the emphasis on the people who came, as opposed to those who stayed away.

And, surprise, surprise, I wouldn’t argue. A wider context might lead me to choose the ‘who’ option instead.

In reality, there’s a very fine distinction between the two.

The point of editing and correcting language, though, is always to analyse intended meaning, and  consider sentences in their full context.