Saturday, March 20, 2010

Numbers and amounts

This morning, I was listening to the news on Radio Scotland, and in particular an item about potholes. Reporting from the side of a pothole in Perthshire, the journalist was talking about the amount of potholes. This is a very relevant topic, following the hardest winter since 1962/63, with snow on the ground for nearly 3 months in some parts of the Highlands. I remarked to a friend that talking about amounts of potholes is grammatically incorrect. You talk about numbers of potholes. Because you can count them. Of course, I would not expect anyone to go on a drive of all the roads in Highland Scotland and tot up the number of time their suspension gets wrecked. However, what could be a relevant statistic is the amount of tar required to fill in all those potholes. Or the number of men needed to put in all that tar.

You can talk about one tonne of tar needed to repair a stretch of road. That's an amount, you can weigh it or measure it; you describe it with a unit (e.g. of length, weight etc). You can't talk about one tar, unless you are watching a performance of Gilbert & Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance.

You can talk about one lorry, needed to carry all that tar, because you can count the number of vehicles. Talking about an amount of lorries does not make sense.


Lori said...

Great entry. I've heard "amount" used when it should be "number". One would think journalists would know better.

Liz said...

Amount n. a quantity, esp. the total of a thing or things in number, size, value, extent, etc. (O.E.D.)

Perhaps the journalist did not have the time to count the potholes, therefore could not give a specific number but attempted to describe the situation by referring to the ‘total number’ as the ‘amount of potholes’.
Anyone can clearly talk about the ‘amount of potholes’ if they willing to include them all.
I am sure the journalist is more than aware that everything they say digs holes in the fabric of our society.
No wonder the journalist did not attempt to count them!