The Better Word

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I stumbled over this sentence the other day.

The amount of people in need far exceeds the amount of government resources available to help them.

See the problem? Amount of people should be number, right? The rule is simple: for things that can be counted, use number; for those that can’t, use amount. So, the number of jokes, but the amount of laughter.

The use of the amount of people has been spreading like crabgrass. Today, I put it in quotes, stuck it into Google, and got 293 million hits. Sure, the number of people still got 540 million hits, but the gap is narrowing. Should this trend continue, we will soon reach the tipping point and have to retire the rule entirely. The old nag will have to be put out to pasture, munching on crabgrass.

When we speak of people, we are not speaking of an undifferentiated mass. People are not a lump, not a gelatinous blob.

 

So what?

As with other such usage rules, this one describes a mere stylistic convention that is somewhat arbitrary. After all, the meaning of the offending sentence is fundamentally the same whether amount or number is used.

In the grand scheme of things, it is a matter of little importance. Most matters are. The voice of reason whispers, “Let it go.” Funny how that voice sounds so much like my wife’s.

Still.

It all starts with the individual. The person. Not the tribe. Not the party. Not the group. The rights, the responsibility, and the agency, all belong first to the person. To the one. Not to the many.

So when we speak of people, we are not speaking of an undifferentiated mass. People are not a lump, not a gelatinous blob.

People are distinct individuals, each entitled to respect and dignity. People can count, which means that they are sentient beings. And they themselves count. That is to say they matter, as human beings, regardless of their group affiliation or particular intersectional ribbon rack. They can also be counted, one by one, and sometimes even be counted upon, to stand up for themselves, and, sometimes, for others, or even for humanity.

It all starts with the individual. The person. Not the tribe. Not the party. Not the group.

 

To refer to a group of human beings as an amount is to objectify humanity.

When there is a choice, then, our language should convey respect to people and be employed to reinforce their individuality.

Here is a practice sentence:

The number of people in need will always exceed the amount of government resources available to help them, because people have an insatiable appetite for free stuff.

Word choice may be a mere matter of style, but style matters, damn it.

Now get off my lawn.

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