# Confused by how to describe amounts and numbers

I've seen 'quantity' used synonymously with amount, but I'm confused with how we 'describe' it.

For example:

'John is one man'

'Two men is a larger amount than one man'

Or

'My collection is four coins'

'For coins is a small amount of coins'

We use 'is' to describe something as a (number and unit) but then also describe (number and unit) as an 'amount' yet, John is 'one man' but John is not an 'amount'.

I'm confused by this way of describing things. Is the use of 'is' a particular usage that makes sense here?

We can treat 'two metres' as a description or adjective, however we use 'two meters' as a sort of name 'two metres is a quantity'. We don't use 'sad' this way.

• Some say that amount should be used for uncountable things and quantity for countable. See this But we usually count people by numbers, not quantities. Commented Nov 23, 2022 at 16:20
• Men are neither quantities nor amounts. They are humans. One human, two humans or individuals or people. Commented Nov 23, 2022 at 17:42

The word "is" is not the same as an equals sign in math. Yes, we use "is" to say that two things are the same. Like, "John is Mary's husband." But we also use "is" to express other sorts of relationships. Among other things, "is" can be followed by an adjective that describes the subject. Like, "John is tall." I don't mean that John is the essence of tallness.

In math, you can substitute things on opposite sides of an equal sign for each other. Like x=2, y=x+4, therefore y=2+4. But you can't do that with the word "is". I may say "John is tall" and "Bob is tall", but that does not mean that therefore "John is Bob".

So, "John is one man". The speaker is not saying that the word "John" means the same as the phrase "one man". He is describing an attribute of John. He is not saying that the idea of "John" is equivalent to the idea of "one man", but simply that "one man" describes "John". John surely has many other attributes. He may be "short". He may be "a plumber". He may be "bald". Etc.

Yes, we can say "Two meters is a quantity." Or more plausibly, "Two meters is a distance." Of course we wouldn't say "Sad is a quantity" or "Sad is a distance", because those things just aren't true about the idea of "sad". We might well say, "Sad is the way I feel today." We'd be more likely to say, "Sadness is a feeling."

Note that you're making a subtle technical error when you say "two meters is an adjective". No, it's not. "Two meters" is a noun phrase. "Two-meter" is an adjective. I can say, "This is a two-meter board", but I wouldn't say, "This is a two meters board." I could say, "This board is two meters" or "I measure the length of this board and the result was two meters." Likewise I can say, "This is a sad day", but I wouldn't say, "This is a sadness day." I might say, "The emotion I feel today is sadness."

This can be a tricky issue, and to the best of my knowledge there are not clear-cut rules for all of it.

The word "is" and other forms of the verb "to be" are used in many different ways.In particularly, when two things are being equated, or one is used to define another, "is" is used. so:

John is one man.

The words "amount", "number" and "quantity" are all used to indicate a count of something, as well as in other ways. They are often used interchangeably in such situations, but not always. For example I might well say "One is a small number of men." but I would not say "One is a small amount of men." It simply does not feel right to me, but I cannot identify any rule that covers this distinction.

We do not say "John is a small amount of men" because "one" is an amount, or a number, but an individual is not an amount or number. ("I am not a number, I am a free man!" to quote the opening of the classic TV shoe The Prisoner) This also goes to show that while we say that using "is" can be a way of equating things, this is not a mathematical equation which makes them the same for all purposes.

• Generally you'd use amount to describe an uncountable quantity, and number to describe a countable quantity. You might have a large amount of water (but not a large number of water), or a large number of bottles (but not a large amount of bottles). This is why describing an "amount of men" sounds odd, but why a "number of men" is OK. "Quantity" can be used with both countable and uncountable nouns. Commented Nov 23, 2022 at 16:18
• @Nuclear Hoagie true, but then the numbers get large, "amount" is more often used for contable items. "\$5 million is a large amount of money" indeed 'amount' is often used for money, althogh that is countable. But also "Ten thousand troops is a large amount of men." Commented Nov 23, 2022 at 16:28
• @DavidSiegel Money is uncountable. Dollar bills are countable, but "money" is uncountable. We don't say, "He has a large amount of dollar bills" but "He has a large number of dollar bills". And we say, "He has a large amount of money", not, "He has a large number of money." Yes, it gets murky when you say "\$5 million is a large amount", but it makes sense if you think of money there like you would think of a liquid. We say "5 gallons of milk is a large amount", but "5 one-gallon jugs of milk is a large number".
– Jay
Commented Nov 23, 2022 at 17:43
• If I say I have four bills in my pocket you can expect to find four bills. If I say have \$45 in my pocket, you have no idea how many of anything is in my pocket. Commented Nov 23, 2022 at 17:47

Seems to me your question is more about be-verbs than quantities, and my feeling is that a better understanding of be-verbs might resolve your uncertainty about describing quantities.

If you try and think of the verb "is" as having some particular meaning, you're in trouble. It's best to think of a be-verb mostly as a function word that connects two concepts together in a way that indicates, in the most general way possible, some commonality between the two connected things. This type of function is called a copula. In English, linking verbs like be-verbs are all copulas.

It could mean that the two are identical, or that one is the definition of the other, or the class/category of the other, or that one describes the other, and so on. It's purely from the context that the audience determines what the commonality is, and the be-verb itself doesn't have any distinct meaning.

Our suspect is that man at the newsstand with the shopping bag. (identity)
A hat is an article of clothing worn on the head. (definition)
ELL is a Q&A website. (class/category)
These horses are powerful. (description)

So in "John is one man", the be-verb gives the class or category of "John", and in "Two men is a larger amount than one man", the be-verb gives a description of "two men" by comparison with "one man". From that wording, nobody would expect "John" to equal "an amount".