Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Number You Have Reached is Not in Service

Back to Bryson's At Home. In describing what he calls "one of the grandest houses ever built in England, Castle Howard in Yorkshire," our genial author says of the imposing edifice, and it's eccentric architect, Sir John Vanbrugh:
A Vanbrugh structure is always like no other, but Castle Howard is, as it were, unusually unusual. It had a large number of formal rooms--thirteen on one floor--but few bedrooms: nothing like the amount that would normally be expected.
 As mentioned before, the word to use when dealing with discrete, countable units (such as rooms) is not amount but number--a particularly noteworthy gaffe here because Bryson uses number correctly earlier in the same sentence. Amount and number, in this way, are close cousins to less and fewer, although, as we discussed recently, the rules governing the distinctions between those two are not quite so cleanly defined.

This also happens to be one of the first grammatical niceties I had ingrained in my neurotic mind as a youth. I was about 10 years old, and showing my father a homework assignment--an essay (I can't remember what it was about, but I remember being proud of it) that contained the phrase "the amount of people who..." My old man gave me a brisk on-the-spot tutorial that set me straight on my error. I remember being impressed that he, as a still-fairly-recent German immigrant, had mastered the English language to such a degree. I also remember being pissed that his nit-picky correction was the only thing he had to say about my masterwork. Were I not of such sound character, such an incident could well have set me on a course to become the sort of person who obsessively nitpicks other peoples' writing.