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Style and the better word
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Style & the better word

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, “number of people” still got 540 million hits, but the gap is narrowing.

Should this trend continue, we may soon reach the tipping point and have to retire the rule entirely. The old nag will have to be put out to pasture, to munch on crabgrass.

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.

Looked at this way, to refer to a group of human beings as an amount is to objectify humanity. It is an insult.

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 exceeds the amount of government resources available to help them at least in part because people have an endless appetite for free stuff.

While the choice of a particular word is often merely a matter of style, style matters.

Now, please get off my lawn.

Scott Chambers is a cartoonist at The Coast News.

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