14

Can anyone please help and tell me if this sentence is correct?

"A significant amount of zombies were detected in your city."

In my opinion it should be "A significant amount of zombies was detected in your city." because "amount" should be in agreement with "was" even though amount usually refers to something plural. Are both (was and were) acceptable in this case?

Edit1: Yes, "number" would be the correct one in this case. So allow me to ask one more thing.

"A significant amount of purchases were detected..."

Does the use of "number" apply in this case also? As purchase is not exactly a thing/person. And if no, is it correct to say "A significant amount of purchases were detected..."?

Edit2: So, please tell me what is the correct phrasing?

"A significant amount of purchases were detected..."

"A significant amount of purchases was detected..."

Or, since purchases are countable, is the use of "number" instead of "amount" correct here, as in:

"A significant number of purchases were detected..."

"A significant number of purchases was detected..."

Or would amount be correct since a purchase involves money and it refers to the amount of money?

Would greatly appreciate an answer, and if possible a detailed explanation.

  • 19
    It should actually be "number" instead of "amount" because "zombies" is a countable noun. – Nicole Dec 18 '14 at 7:07
  • 1
    ... because "zombie/s" is a countable noun. For the purposes of grammar, yes. Etically? – Edwin Ashworth Dec 18 '14 at 7:17
  • 2
    A purchase amount is the sum of money involved in one or in a number of purchases. – oerkelens Dec 18 '14 at 7:35
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    Regardless of whether the zombies come in amounts or numbers, and whether they're singular or plural, I sure as hell hope the sentence isn’t correct. I don't have time to go around killing zombies today! – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 18 '14 at 11:43
  • 4
    man talk about paying attention to the wrong part of the message. RUN – jhocking Dec 18 '14 at 21:29
40

You are being followed by zombies. You pick them off one at a time (shooting them in the head, of course) until there are no zombies left. Can you count the dead zombies?

Of course you can. They are countable. So the word to describe them is number.

A small number of zombies were chasing me. They were part of a large number of zombies that were detected in the city. (number + are)

Applesauce is oozing towards you, threatening to engulf you. To do so, it would need to be a very large amount of applesauce. Can you count the amount of applesauce that is threatening you?

No, you can't. Applesauce is uncountable.

A large amount of applesauce was on the ground nearby. (amount + is)

Likewise (but be careful when number is the subject; A definite number as subject is singular, but if it is an indefinite number, it's plural, and the verb reflects the plural. Check your determiner.)

A significant number of purchases were detected. One was for shoes, three purchases were for coats, and two were for umbrellas. The total number was six.

  • 2
    @oerkelens - in this case, number is plural. A number of birds were chirping. This number is too high; we must have added them up incorrectly. – anongoodnurse Dec 18 '14 at 7:37
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    Ok, I'm ever so slightly confused about the seemingly directly opposite opinions here... I'll sit back with the popcorn to see which side gathers the largest number of supporters :) – oerkelens Dec 18 '14 at 7:41
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    Well, everyone seems to agree on the number/amount part, but the real question, "can number be used with a plural?", seems to have the camps divided. I feel that the use of the plural with number is quite common, and at least in some dialects acceptable, but the downvotes that such an opinion attracted gave me pause. If both opinions are present, I would, from a descriptivist point of view, assert that the plural is acceptable. The downvotes are not in line with the generally (rabid) descriptivism on this site, though :D – oerkelens Dec 18 '14 at 7:57
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    @oerkelens: I suspect downvotes out of what you and I each see as prescriptivism, are because the question specifically says "is this correct?", which puts people in mind of classrooms and strongly-worded letters to the New York Times disputing subtle points of grammar or style. This rules out a lot of English from the discourse and means acceptable != correct. It's also possible that this usage genuinely is something the downvoters never encounter, so despite being descriptivist they think some descriptions are plain wrong. That's what one gets for appealing to the reader's experience :-) – Steve Jessop Dec 18 '14 at 11:43
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    @oerkelens There's a question for that. And an answer. – RegDwigнt Dec 18 '14 at 12:11
10

To add on to Medica's answer, the reason why "number" can be both singular and plural is because it is being used differently in the two cases.

A significant number of purchases were detected. One was for shoes, three purchases were for coats, and two were for umbrellas. The total number was six.

In the first instance, the noun is "purchases", and "number of" is acting not as a noun, but as an indefinite pronoun determiner. Therefore the plural "were" should be used.

In the second instance, the noun is "number", and therefore the singular "was" should be used.

From Oxford Dictionaries:

Although the expression ‘a number’ is strictly singular, the phrase ‘a number of’' is used with plural nouns (as what grammarians call a determiner (or determiner)). The verb should therefore be plural:

A number of people are waiting for the bus.

This is not the case with ‘the number’, which is still singular:

The number of people here has increased since this morning.

  • 2
    There were purchases. A significant number of them was/were detected. Are you still sure that number is not the main noun in that second sentence? If so, please explain how them can function properly as the subject in that sentence... – oerkelens Dec 18 '14 at 9:50
  • @oerkelens Updated answer with a citation. I am unsure how to answer your additional example, as I could not find any sources on this. – March Ho Dec 18 '14 at 10:18
  • @oerkelens I would argue that "them" is the pronoun acting as a noun subject in the second sentence, in a similar construction to "The students like to eat barley. They also like to eat rice." As such, the sin/plu agreement will become "A significant number of them (purchases) were detected". – March Ho Dec 18 '14 at 10:30
  • You are ignoring the immense difference between they and them. They is indeed a subjective form, but them is an object. They like to eat apples, sure. But them were detected??? No, A number was/were detected. – oerkelens Dec 18 '14 at 10:36
  • @oerkelens Do you think this warrants being asked as a separate question? (I do agree with your logic, which is why I am confused) – March Ho Dec 18 '14 at 10:38
2
+100

Amount vs. Number


General Rule:

Amount is used in reference to mass nouns

Number is used in reference to count nouns

Mass Noun

A noun denoting something which cannot be counted (e.g. a substance or quality), in English usually a noun which

  • lacks a plural in ordinary usage and
  • is not used with the indefinite article,

e.g. We say:

  • an amount of furniture (Two furnitures? No! a furniture? No!)
  • an amount of happiness. (Two happinesses? No! a happiness? No!)

Count Noun

NOUN

A noun that can form a plural and, in the singular, can be used with the indefinite article

e.g. We say:

  • a number of books (Two books? Sure! a book? Sure!)
  • a number of chairs (Two chairs? Sure! a chair? Sure!)

So let's put the definitions and rule to the test with zombies and purchases

  • Since zombies is the plural of zombie and it would be quite natural to say a zombie, we say: A number of zombies.
  • Since purchases is the plural of purchase and it would be quite natural to say a purchase, we say: A number of purchases.

Both zombie and purchase are count nouns, and we use number in in reference to count nouns.

Easy mneumonic "count the number of x"


An exception? Not really!

There is a second definition for Mass Noun

1.1 A noun denoting something which normally cannot be counted but which may be countable when it refers to different units or types

e.g. coffee

In the sense of I bought a pound of coffee We say:

  • an amount of coffee (Two coffees? Not in this sense! a coffee? Not in this sense!)

SO here is the confusion!

In the sense of I ordered two coffees, we say:

  • a number of coffees

The mass noun coffee functions as a count noun when it refers to specific:

  • units like cups of coffee (two coffees is two cups of coffee)

OR

  • types like Columbian coffee or Kenyan coffee (two coffees is two kinds of coffee)

Plural or Singular?

The expression "an amount of..."

will always be singular, because the mass noun it refers to will always be singular. An amount of... denotes a quantity without specific number.

  • An amount of furniture does not consider the number of pieces of furniture.
  • An amount of flour does not consider the number of grains, cups, pounds or tons of flour.

Conversely,

The expression "a number of..."

SHOULD always be plural, because the count noun is assumed to be plural. If it were singular, you would not use the construction "a number of...". The indefinite article simply denotes that the number is indefinite: it could be 2, 200, 202 or 2002.

  • "A significant number of zombies were detected in your city." We detected more than one zombie, but we don't know exactly how many, so we say a number of zombies were detected.

In that sentence zombies is acting as the subject and "a number of" is the determiner for zombies, modifying zombies as an adjective (in place of the unspecified number.) The second example works the same way.

  • "A significant number of purchases were detected..." We detected more than one purchase, but we don't know exactly how many, so we say a number of purchases were detected.

So why does the "wrong one" sound so right?

"The number of..." will always be singular because the definite number is singular and is functioning as the subject of the sentence.

  • "The significant number of zombies being detected in your city is growing!"
  • "The significant number of purchase being detected...impacts the economy."

The untrained native speaker overlooks the subtle distinction between two constructions: a number of... and the number of... Specifically, the grammatical notion of the determiner is pretty obscure to most folks. It sounds close enough, and before you know it, half the world is saying aint, and there it is--in the dictionary! We don't need perfect grammar to communicate, but the better our grammar, the clearer our communication.

  • The alternative definition for 'mass noun' (assuming it is being used as a strict synonym of 'non-count noun', which isn't the case with Collins Cobuild) is on a par with 'transitive verb: a verb which normally requires a direct object but sometimes doesn't'. It only makes sense to define usages as count or non-count. Most dictionaries reflect this, labelling usages as either count or non-count. Thus 'Louis XVI is a furniture distinguishable by its ...' (count); 'What lovely furniture!' (non-count). – Edwin Ashworth Sep 29 '16 at 23:53
1

As @Nicole stated, the proper quantifying adjective would be "number" as opposed to "amount" since it refers to a countable noun. However, you are correct in that the best way to word the sentence is:

A significant number of zombies was detected in your city.

The "was" refers to "a significant number" which is a singular collection, not plural.

If you were to use "were," you'd need to say something along the lines of:

Significant numbers of zombies were detected in your city.

  • 1
    Could you support that answer, please? It doesn't sound correct to my (native AmE) ears. – anongoodnurse Dec 18 '14 at 7:32
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    What do you mean? "Was" refers to something singular and "were" refers to something plural. – Goodies Dec 18 '14 at 7:38
  • But what if was and were are being misused? In other words, what is the number of amount vs. number? – anongoodnurse Dec 18 '14 at 8:28
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    Upvote - I believe this is correct way to say it. At least this is how my teacher explained things when I was studying English. Unfortunately I couldn't find proof. – Nikola Kolev Dec 19 '14 at 7:19
  • Quantifier usage doesn't necessarily echo obvious agreement patterns. You wouldn't say 'a dozen mince pies was eaten'. You wouldn't say 'a good many mince pies was eaten'. And you wouldn't say 'a number of us is unhappy about this answer'. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 27 '14 at 0:23
-1

Both are used. That is to say, either is used.

"An amount of zombies" could be a singular compound noun. If you detected zombies combined together as an amount then you can say "an amount of zombies was detected". For example, maybe your zombie detector showed up orange to mean "an amount", as opposed to red meaning "shedloads" or green meaning "no zombies", but it doesn't show individual blips for each zombie, just a general zombie density in the area.

If you experienced the event "I detected a zombie" several separate times, then it seems more natural to say "An amount of zombies were detected" rather than "was". In that case "An amount of" is a quantifier, like "A thousand" or "Some" or "Most of the". Like medica's answer says, "A number of" would generally be preferred, but that's not what you asked :-)

To say that it must be "was" is, I think, to say that "an amount of" cannot be a quantifier. To say that it must be "were" is, I think, to say that "an amount of zombies" cannot be a compound singular noun. I would not be so prescriptive as to rule out either of those always and forever, although I wouldn't be too surprised if some grammar/style guides do, especially if they ruled out "an amount of" as a quantifier for a count noun, the same as they might rule out "less" in favour of "fewer". It's nevertheless pretty common to use those kinds of mass-qualifiers with count nouns. At least, it is round my way, but medica's answer seems to disagree and I think you could reasonably call it colloquial ("incorrect"?) rather than formal ("correct"?).

The meaning of "amount" is different from "number", since it refers to the collective quantity rather than the number of individuals, but there are plenty of contexts where this difference is irrelevant: a zombie apocalypse probably included! I think that what I say above about singular/plural can apply just as well to "number" as "amount": that the distinction is between a singular compound noun and a quantified plural noun. Specifically, medica's answer seems to me to assert that "a number of zombies" cannot be a singular noun except where the noun is the number itself as opposed to the group enumerated. I think it can be and sometimes is the group. But for all I know, maybe not in standard North American Englishes.

Alternatively, you might read "a number of zombies was detected" to mean that the number itself (singular) was detected. This might not strictly be physically accurate, you probably detected the zombies and deduced the number by counting up the detections, but it reads OK to me so I believe it's a real usage. Whereas saying "a number of zombies was chasing me" does sound rather strange if you try to interpret it that way, since you can't be chased by a number. You have to be using "a number" to mean "a group" in order to say "a number of zombies was chasing me". This meaning of "number" is all the way down at 8 on http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/number, so it would be understandable if it didn't get interpreted the way you wanted if you were to use it in an ambiguous context like this.

  • 1
    If things are countable as distinct individual units (even if only potentially), there's a number of them. If it's practically impossible to distinguish individual parts, use amount. Eg: An extremely large number of atoms in the amount of water in the beaker. – Agi Hammerthief Dec 18 '14 at 11:17
  • @snotwaffle: you'd think, but English isn't that clean. Or to those who insist it must be clean, almost any count noun is used in English in its plural form as a mass noun, thus enabling "amount". "A large number of zombies -> 1482 tonnes of zombies -> a large amount of zombies". Even if the last one "should" be "a large amount of zombie" that's not what people say. – Steve Jessop Dec 18 '14 at 11:33
  • Now you're changing things to talk about the collective mass of the zombies, not the individual zombies themselves, which is not the same thing/concept. My issue (and I could be getting the wrong impression) is that you're saying 'amount' and 'number' are interchangeable, when they're clearly not. – Agi Hammerthief Dec 18 '14 at 11:41
  • @snotwaffle: oh, I didn't mean to say they're semantically interchangeable, just that all of the permutations can be grammatically correct. Or at least acceptable in common use, for those with very prescriptive standards of "correct". If the intention is to warn of zombies then the semantic difference between saying the number of zombies is non-zero and saying the collective mass of zombie(s) is non-zero, is negligible. – Steve Jessop Dec 18 '14 at 11:48
  • Ah, I see the point you're making. – Agi Hammerthief Dec 18 '14 at 11:51

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