Writing Tips: Countables Do Count!

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When my clients ask for writing tips, I often share them in my newsletter and blogs.

This one is about ‘countables’. Let me explain.

Here’s a sentence I had to edit recently:
The amount of people who came were amazing.

Can you see what’s wrong with it?

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

More about that in a while.

It’s about countables

The first problem is with the word amount. We can’t talk about an amount of people, or of pencils, videos, elephants….

We don’t use the word amount for ‘countables’ – that is, anything that can be ‘counted’ or considered individually.

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

Simple examples 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

For ‘countables’, we say a number of – for example:
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.

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

That’s Error #1 fixed. But what about the rest of the sentence?

Subject-Verb Agreement

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

The number is amazing, and the noun is singular, so the verb has to be singular:
The number of people … was amazing.

So Error #2 has been corrected.

The Tricky Bit

What is open for debate is whether to use who or that.

This is where is 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, watch out for the next Tighter Writer Tip: A Spot of Dot Pointing

Even Tighter 

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. For ‘things’, it’s 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 tricky.

The word amazing is the key. It’s not the number alone that was amazing; the number that came is the most important idea in the sentence, and what caused the amazement.

If we reduce the sentence to its basics, and still retain the main point, we would say:
The number that came was amazing

and of people is almost redundant.

Some might say:
The number of people who came was amazing (as opposed to people who stayed away)

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

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

Happy (and Tighter) Writing!