a large amount of + the plural form of a countable noun?

Hi, everyone.
Today when I was reading an article on anti-plagiarism software, I came across the structure of "a ... amount of + the plural form of a countable noun". The whole paragraph in which the structure appears goes as follows:
"There's an increasing amount of freshmen who don't know how to write a research paper," Sheldon says. "There seems to be a lot of confusion. They're not out to violate, but I do think that there's something going on."
I remember The CoBuild Usage Dictionary tells us not to use "an amount of" with things or people. Last weekend, when I was on a panel of judges for the graduating students' oral defense of their theses, I asked a student to change "a large amount of scholars (in the United States believe that the novel The Sun Also Rises reflects the richness of the content and artistic style of the originality of Hemingway's writing.)" to "a large number of scholars ..." Did I make a big mistake here? Quite probably the student copied the whole sentence from an article written by a native writer and he would laugh at my stupidity in urging him to change what is real English to what sounds unnatural.
I beg you to do me a favour and tell me why this structure goes against authoritative dictionaries. Is this an issue of style? Is it a colloquialism, which is not used in formal writing or speech?
Please help me out.
Thanks.
Richard
 
  • panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    I certainly would not write about "a large amount of freshmen", for the reasons you have outlined, but many people would.
    ____________________________________

    If you look at the British National Corpus, "amount of people" appears 23 times, almost all of them in spoken English.
    Compare that with "number of people", which appears 1,172 times including newspapers and academic writing.
    The Corpus of Contemporary American English shows similar distribution results (the counts are 99 and 3,773, respectively).
     
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    Matching Mole

    Senior Member
    England, English
    Merriam-Webster has this usage guidance:
    Number is regularly used with count nouns <a large number of mistakes> <any number of times> while amount is mainly used with mass nouns <annual amount of rainfall> <a substantial amount of money>. The use of amount with count nouns has been frequently criticized; it usually occurs when the number of things is thought of as a mass or collection <glad to furnish any amount of black pebbles — New Yorker>
    The last example is interesting, as it gives an example of a countable noun used with amount. However, I think the point is that it is considered correct or logical because the pebbles are not going to be counted out, they are offered in bulk (for example in sacks) or by weight. I can't think it appropriate to speak of freshmen in terms of bulk measures. They are clearly considered as individuals.

    Note that the above usage note is not particularly prescriptive, but comments on usual or regular usage, etc. Nevertheless, I doubt that many style or grammar guides or dictionaries will disagree with your criticism of "amount of freshmen". Whether this would be used or not (and we see that it is) is another matter. Speakers and writers deviate from formally accepted usages all the time. Such deviations become standard when virtually no one follows the old "correct" usage. I don't think we have yet reached that point with "amount".
     
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    I certainly would not write about "a large amount of freshmen", for the reasons you have outlined, but many people would.
    ____________________________________

    If you look at the British National Corpus, "amount of people" appears 23 times, almost all of them in spoken English.
    Compare that with "number of people", which appears 1,172 times including newspapers and academic writing.
    The Corpus of Contemporary American English shows similar distribution results (the counts are 99 and 3,773, respectively).
    Thanks, panjandrum. English sometimes gives me nothing but perplexity and horror. Thanks for your help.
     
    Merriam-Webster has this usage guidance:
    The last example is interesting, as it gives an example of a countable noun used with amount. However, I think the point is that it is considered correct or logical because the pebbles are not going to be counted out, they are offered in bulk (for example in sacks) or by weight. I can't think it appropriate to speak of freshmen in terms of bulk measures. They are clearly considered as individuals.

    Note that the above usage note is not particularly prescriptive, but comments on usual or regular usage, etc. Nevertheless, I doubt that many style or grammar guides or dictionaries will disagree with your criticism of "amount of freshmen". Whether this would be used or not (and we see that it is) is another matter. Speakers and writers deviate from formally accepted usages all the time. Such deviations become standard when virtually no one follows the old "correct" usage. I don't think we have yet reached that point with "amount".
    Thanks for giving me your insight into the nature of language. Sheldon, the speaker of "There's an increasing amount of freshmen who don't know ...", is assistant dean of Northwestern University's Weinberg College of Arts and Science in Evanston, most problably a native speaker of English. I would like to refer you to http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2006-05-22-plagiarism-digital_x.htm. and let you have a look at it. The sentence "There's an increasing amount of freshmen who don't know..." is the first sentence in the last paragraph of the report. I guess probably native youngsters like to speak this casual way.
    Thanks for your great explanation again.
     

    JulianStuart

    Senior Member
    English (UK then US)
    I must confess I have nightmarish images flash through my head when I hear "amount of people" :(

    The way I remembered the "rule" was if you could count them you would come up with a number, and if you couldn't count the noun (sugar, money, flour, snow, soil etc) you just ended up with a little mound ("a mount") of it. I think this is one of those errors that will eventually be acceptable that I will never get used to.
     

    manon33

    Senior Member
    English - England (Yorkshire)
    It is an extremely widespread error, even among native speakers. I resort to telling pupils just to say 'a lot of' if they cannot remember or understand the difference between 'amount' and 'number'.
     
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