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I always thought we don't say "the quantity of people", but to my surprise, there are cases when people do use it. Look at these examples:

  1. The quantity of people losing their jobs is still on the rise. Huffington Post
  2. What is essential here is not the quantity of people who see the work, or even that witnesses are present; "Action" is done many, many times with no one watching. The New York Times
  3. Nevertheless, the quantity of people being annoyed exceeds by far the number of persons with diagnosed outcomes that can be ascribed to vehicle exhaust exposure, which makes annoyance an important public health issue. National Library of Medicine

So, in what cases can you use "the quantity of people"?

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  • 5
    Because they received a thesaurus for their birthday.
    – TimR
    May 15 at 9:23
  • 4
    (Posting as comment due to uncertainty.)  Could ‘quantity’ be used for an implication that the number is large?  Compare for example if it had used ‘The sheer quantity of people…’.
    – gidds
    May 15 at 14:30
  • The only reason you would use "quantity of people" is because English is not your native language and in a moment of brain fart you used the similar but not the same word "quantity" because you remember "number" to mean "numerical glyphs"
    – Raestloz
    May 16 at 8:45
  • @gidds , No it does not imply it is large.
    – Fattie
    May 16 at 15:49
  • 3
    ludwig, guru: The phrase "the quantity of people" is correct and usable in written English. You can use this phrase to refer to an unspecified but large number of people. For example, "The quantity of people who attended the event was staggering." ///The quantity of people is important here, and the fact that every individual in this crowd of millions appears to be missing his or her face. Kiran Desai is the author of the Booker prize-winning The Inheritance of Loss. The Guardian in Ludwig.guru
    – Lambie
    May 16 at 23:11

5 Answers 5

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Realistically, there are no contexts where a learner should think of using "the quantity of people" or "the amount of people". Use "the number of people".

There will always be a few examples of the "unusual" choice of phrasing, but it's really not worth trying to justify - let alone copy them...

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    I happily copy Charles Dickens at every opportunity: Following the wall of the jail, I found the roadway covered with straw to deaden the noise of passing vehicles; and from this, and from the quantity of people standing about, smelling strongly of spirits and beer, I inferred that the trials were on. (Great Expectations) May 15 at 10:02
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    @MichaelHarvey: Well, you're not a learner. I don't think learners should waste their time and brain cells trying to figure out when and why they might want to avoid using number of people. And I have to say the OP's last cited example, with it's random switch between the quantity of people and the number of persons is probably the worst bit of written text from a native speaker in a formal context that I've seen in a long time. KISS! May 15 at 12:47
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    @FumbleFingers The authors of example #3 are Swedish (or at least affiliated with a Swedish university) so my guess is that this is not an example of written text from a native speaker. The lesson is to check what sources you're using.
    – David K
    May 15 at 23:04
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    @Fattie Actually, quantity can be used with countable nouns as well as uncountable nouns, which is why the Dickens quote is perfectly natural. I was responding mainly to the assumption that the authors of #3 were native speakers. In this case it's probably more significant that the source is in a medical journal; how good is their copy-editing? Even the NY Times is a little iffy nowadays.
    – David K
    May 16 at 17:11
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    @Spitemaster: I never intended to suggest there are no contexts where a "careful" speaker might justifiably use one of those "less common" constructions. And feasibly cliched alliterations such as I prefer quality over quantity would count as "justifiable". But it's not necessary, and arguably it's really just "wordplay" (almost never a good idea in a foreign language). My primary point is that a learner who sticks with the standard number of people will probably never be "wrong" (and he'll be saving brain cells that could be used to learn something more useful! :) May 17 at 17:18
7

In all three of your examples number would be correct, and quantity, while not technically incorrect, is awkward. The two words quantity and quality are often contrasted, and perhaps there are related sentences mentioning quality, which might justify the use of the expression "quantity of people".

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    I don’t know that I would absolve quantity of technical incorrectness here. To my American ear (and to clarify, I have no other, except its mate on the opposite side of my skull), quantity of is used with mass nouns and number of with count nouns. Thus quantity of milk and number of cookies. May 15 at 13:23
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    @PaulTanenbaum Quantity can be used either for amount or for number.
    – David K
    May 16 at 17:15
  • That is indeed a good way to put it, @DavidK
    – Fattie
    May 16 at 17:35
  • Yeah, that was my immediate association too. But given that I can't think of many contexts in which the phrase "quality of people" would be deemed socially appropriate, by connotation, this would be another reason to avoid "quantity of people"
    – yoniLavi
    May 17 at 10:11
1

It is simply much more common to say "number of people". You are very unlikely to go wrong by choosing the word "number" rather than "quantity". The NGrams search in this answer confirms that writers almost always choose "number".

But the reasons for this are subtler than the usual grammatical rules that distinguish how we treat countable and uncountable nouns, because quantity can be either countable or uncountable.

From The Cambridge Dictionary:

A quantity of or quantities of?

Quantity is more formal than amount or number. A quantity of or quantities of can be followed by a countable noun or an uncountable noun. They are most commonly used with an adjective such as huge, big, large, small:

The soldiers discovered a large quantity of weapons hidden under the floor of a disused building. (countable)

You only need a very small quantity of cement to mix with the sand. (uncountable)

In summary, you are well advised to say or write "number of people" rather than "quantity of people." But don't be surprised when you see a writer do the opposite. It may be bad writing or they may be making an expert choice of the register of their writing. Even well-read native speakers can have trouble telling the difference.

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  1. The quantity of people losing their jobs is still on the rise. Huffington Post
  1. Nevertheless, the quantity of people being annoyed exceeds by far the number of persons with diagnosed outcomes that can be ascribed to vehicle exhaust exposure. National Library of Medicine

Typically, and in these examples, 'number of people/persons' is a clearer and more natural phrasing than 'quantity of people', since the former in particular indicates that the quantity of interest is a count/numerosity rather than a measurement (is discrete rather than continuous) and has no units.

  1. What is essential here is not the quantity of people who see the work, or even that witnesses are present; "Action" is done many, many times with no one watching. The New York Times

This author is perhaps making a stylistic choice to refer less to count than (more generally) to magnitude.

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    It's simpler than that. Quantity can be either countable or uncountable.
    – David K
    May 16 at 17:17
  • People are always countable. There might be reasons of style to choose "quantity of people", as Dickens did in Great Expectations (quoted under FumbleFingers's answer). In example #2 the number of people who might be witnesses could have been very small indeed (which is the point of the quotation, in fact). Most of the time, I agree, there is no good reason to choose "quantity" rather than "number."
    – David K
    May 16 at 19:57
  • @DavidK I am not saying that 'quantity of people' suggests uncountability—just that 'number of people' definitely refers to counting.
    – ryang
    May 16 at 22:00
  • Yes, and we have a natural preference for the more specific word. Clearly there is some reason why "number" is overwhelmingly favored over "quantity" in the Ngrams search FumbleFingers did.
    – David K
    May 16 at 22:45
-1

The actual answer is very straightforward.

It's completely normal in English that a word can have a number of senses.

"People" can be the countable noun "people" but it can also be the uncountable noun "people".

That's all there is to it.

  • Looking at the graph posted by FF, you can see the uncountable noun "people" is used in print, say, perhaps 500x less than the countable noun "people".

  • You could describe the uncountable version as "archaic", but I wouldn't. I use it all the time; it's used all the time by eg. statisticians; etc. But, sure, it's kind of vaguely "formal sounding" or "pretentious".

(Note that the example at hand, which is indeed a statistics paper, that is one of the places you would see the uncountable version used. Note too for clarity that indeed there are numerous other senses of "people", such as "the folk", "my gang" etc. On top of all that, it's totally normal to use it as the singular, "people".)

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  • The use of "quantity" strikes me as particularly odd in this case because there is no obvious method of quantizing an amount of people other than counting them. For most nouns that can be both countable and uncountable, it is indeed impossible to count the items when used in the uncountable sense. You can count how many coffees I drink, but not how much coffee I drink. I can't imagine any scenario where you'd refer to a quantity of people and be referring to anything other than how many there are - i.e. their count. May 16 at 17:51
  • Mm, I don't really see that, NukeH. (i) i see no requirement that, an uncountable noun, need have (in the mathematical sense) an effective unit. you often just mean vague measure, say, "a lot" as in say a lot of nonsense or "an impressive" quantity of people, etc (ii) the direct answer to your point would be say N million, the quantity of people losing their jobs was order ten million, (iii) quantity of people is just meat (and some bones), in that sense it would be more familiar with eg cattle :)
    – Fattie
    May 16 at 18:14
  • A quantity, by definition, can be quantized. You can't typically can't quantize something without a unit, and I can't think of any uncountable noun that would not take a unit. You can describe a quantity of milk as 10 gallons of milk or 10 bottles of milk, but not simply 10 milk. But there isn't any other reasonable unit for people other than counting them - in the overwhelming number of circumstances, people come in whole units. It would be very strange to say the quantity of people is 1000kg. May 16 at 18:47
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    @Mari-LouA My comment was not exhaustive on the uses of "people." The examples in the question use neither of the meanings I listed, but use "people" in the (most common) countable collective sense of a group of individuals as distinguished from my second sense above as a countable collective groups of individuals. "People" in each of the question's examples is plural, but they are attached to the singular "quantity" which takes a singular verb.
    – Jed Schaaf
    May 17 at 5:23
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    "A quantity of French people drinks wine" is absolutely grammatically correct, because quantity is singular and not collective. Plural nouns and pronouns and collective nouns take plural verbs. It is an extremely common grammatical error to use an object of a preposition immediately preceding a verb ("French people" in this case) as the subject of a sentence.
    – Jed Schaaf
    May 17 at 6:53

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