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Amount and number

Some people dressed in orange are wading out into a lake
A number of students were subjected to various freshman pranks by the lake

You need to understand the difference between amount and number.

There are things we can count and things we cannot count. With countable nouns we use number of and with uncountable nouns amount of. We can talk about the amount of time we work or about the number of hours we work.

A large number of cars had stopped behind the lorry.
We were impressed by the number of spectators.
She only drank a small amount of water.
I hadn’t expected that amount of work.

We can also use plural forms:
He drank vast amounts of beer.
Here you will find statistics related to numbers of taxpayers and registered traders.

With amount we say how much of something is present.
With number we talk about how many there are.

Notice how the verb form changes:

The number of students has increased every year since 2015.
The verb is in the singular because the main subject here is number. The word students could be replaced by another word such as cars, newspapers, attacks, etc.

A number of students have published a campus journal.
The verb is in the plural because the main subject is students. A number of can be replaced by, for example, some.

To sum up:
The number of … has the singular form of the verb.
A number of … has the plural form of the verb.

Both amount and number can also be used as verbs:
How much did it amount to?
Number the parts from 1–10 according to how you rate their functionality.

Compounds in English

When two or more words are combined to form a new concept with a new meaning, we talk about a compound.

A compound can be a combination of a noun and a noun (school nurse), an adjective and a noun (full noon), an adverb and a verb (far-reaching), a verb and an adverb (check-up), a preposition and a noun (underworld), a preposition and a verb (overestimate), an adjective and another adjective (blue-green) – and a few more combinations.

In English there are three ways to write compound words: as separate words (open compounds), as one word (closed compounds) or as words combined with a hyphen (hyphenated compounds). This can sometimes be rather confusing. We write head office as separate words, we write head-teacher with a hyphen and we write headmaster as one word. Likewise we have table knife but tablespoon.

This may seem frustrating, and if you are in doubt, you had better check a dictionary or a style sheet. (Actually, you can also write stylesheet. Some compounds can take any of the three forms. You can write life style, life-style or lifestyle.)

OPEN COMPOUNDS

Here are some examples of open compounds:

apple piehalf sister
coffee muginformation technology
computer networklight year
couch potatoliving room
database designmaster bedroom
decision makerorange juice
dinner tablepost office
English teacherswimming pool
evening dresstruck driver
football stadiumvideo game
full moonwashing machine
Two adults hiking in the Julian Alps in Slovenia on their way to the highest peak, Triglav.
An open compound: Mountain climbers

CLOSED COMPOUNDS

The following are examples of compounds written in one word:

afternoonmakeup
airportnewspaper
blackboardnotebook
bodyguardonline
bookstorepaycheck
cupcakepolicewoman
cowboyskateboard
doorbellsubstandard
downtowntakeaway
footballtextbook
grandmotherunderworld
handoutwallpaper
headachewatermelon
inputworksheet

HYPHENATED COMPOUNDS

Many compounds – especially those formed by two nouns – used to be hyphenated, but now most of them are written either as one word or two separate words. Here are some compounds that are still hyphenated (and you will notice that they are generally not of the noun+noun type):

broad-mindedrunner-up
check-insecretary-general
dry-cleaningself-esteem
far-reachingsix-pack
go-betweenwell-being
passer-byX-ray

Compounds with three or more words are usually written with hyphens:

around-the-clockmerry-go-round
do-it-yourselfmother-of-pearl
editor-in-chiefright-of-way
father-in-lawjack-of-all.trades
happy-go-luckystate-of-the-art

Compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine are hyphenated:

My dad is forty-two.

Fractions also take a hyphen:

We had already driven two-thirds of the way.

Less than one-fifth of the operators are women.

But with a instead of one there is no hyphen: Less than a fifth of the operators are women.

Some compounds have changed from being hyphenated to a single word. We used to write on-line and world-wide, but nowadays online and worldwide are more common. This also applies to words such as cooperate and proactive.

When compounds are used as modifiers, they are written with a hyphen. A modifier works as an adjective or adverb to add information about the word directly following it.

A six-year-old boy.

But: The boy was six years old.

We rely on just-in-time delivery.

But: I arrived just in time. The clock struck three when I opened the door.

I will write more about this in my next blog post.

Big, large and great

Can you sort out big, large and great?

Generally speaking, big describes weight or extent, large is often related to dimensions or volume and great suggests something impressive. Great is often used with abstract nouns.

BIG

Big is used more often than large. In fact, big is one of the most frequent words in the English language. Big may also sound a little less formal than large.

They have a big mansion in the countryside.

Big often means important, powerful, successful:
That’s a big decision.
He is a big tycoon in the automotive industry.

Big can also mean older or elder:
My big brother has helped me a lot.

LARGE

As mentioned above, large often refers to dimension or volume.
They have a large house with a very large garden.
I have a large collection of posters from the 1960s.

A large black bird with its wings stretched out is silhouetted against the sky
A large bird or, if you like, a big bird

Large is more common with some quantity words such as the following:
A large amount
A large number
To a large extent
On a large scale
A large percentage
A large quantity

With food and clothes we use large:
I’d like a large coffee, please.
Those shoes are too large for you.

Large, not big, is used in the combination small, medium, large.

The expression at large has two meanings, 1) free, at liberty and 2) as a whole, in general:
The prisoner is still at large.
These findings relate to society at large.

Big and large are only used with countable nouns (read here about countable and uncountable nouns).
You cannot talk about *big traffic or *large traffic (for the use of the asterisk, read at the end of this text). Instead we use heavy traffic, intense traffic or a lot of traffic.

Big and large often overlap in meaning when we talk about size.
A big house.
A large house.

It is sometimes said that big implies an element of emotion, surprise, etc., especially in fixed expressions such as the following:
Big deal!
She’s a big fan of the Rolling Stones.
He’s a big liar.

A big-headed man is not the same as a large-headed man! A big-headed man thinks he is more important or cleverer than others, while a large-headed man just has a large head.

Susan is my big sister – she is older than me.
Susan is my large sister – she is physically larger than my other siblings.

GREAT

Great implies a large size:
All creatures great and small.

Great often means distinguished, remarkable:
She is one of the greatest novelists of our time.
The performance was a great success.
I have great respect for her abilities.
He has great wisdom.
My cousin is really great at tennis.

To vary your language, you should use synonyms. In a dictionary of synonyms you will find many words to describe size or importance, such as huge, enormous, sizeable, impressive, momentous, substantial, comprehensive, extensive, immense, tremendous, prominent, distinguished, etc.

While or meanwhile?

Writers often confuse while and meanwhile.

WHILE

While is a conjunction; it starts a subclause and means during the time that.

This all happened while you were asleep.
While you peel the potatoes, I will make the salad.
While driving along the coast, Robert noticed a large number of birds flying just above the waves.

Against the blue sea a man is stretching on the beach while his wife is lying under a parasol
While Laura enjoyed reading on the beach, Henry did some exercises. Meanwhile, their son had gone for an ice cream.

To indicate that something happened during a shorter time we use when.
I was reading the newspaper when there was a sudden knock on the door.

We can use while to contrast ideas:

While Germans are beer drinkers, most Italians prefer wine.
Here while has the meaning of in contrast, on the other hand, unlike or whereas.

In British English you can often see the form whilst instead of while.

MEANWHILE

Meanwhile is an adverb and usually starts a new sentence. It means the same as in the meantime, all the while or at the same time.

Susan went out in the garden to pick some flowers. Meanwhile, I decorated the cake.
Start boiling the water for the rice. Meanwhile, slice the tomatoes and the carrots.

Notice that it is wrong to write *in the meanwhile. It must be either meanwhile or in the meantime. (For the use of the asterisk, see my comment at the end of this text.)

Thesauri

A dictionary is a list of words and their definitions. A thesaurus (plural thesauri or thesauruses) does not give definitions of words but lists words grouped together according to their meaning.

The first modern thesaurus, published in 1852 by Peter Mark Roget, is still widely used. The book is organised according to ideas or concepts. You first look up a word in the index in the second half of the book, where you will find one or several synonyms for that word, each with a reference number. Under production, for example, in my copy of Roget’s I find the words product, production and dramaturgy. The first two words refer to section 164 and the third to 594 (having to do with drama and ballet). Here you can see a part of section 164 (the numbers before some of the words refer to further sections in the book):

A page from Rogets Thesaurus with the entry for the word production

You will notice the richness of expressions here. There are concrete words such as thing, designer and skyscraper and more abstract ones such as attempt, productivity and idea. When you use a thesaurus like this, you need to understand nuances in meaning.

Roget’s Thesaurus is also available online here.

Online you can also find the following:

en.oxforddictionaries.com/thesaurus
collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english-thesaurus
merriam-webster.com/thesaurus
and others.

The Longman Language Activator is in a way similar to Roget’s; it is based on concepts. However, it is called a production dictionary instead of a thesaurus – it will help writers produce their ideas. Here is a part of the entry on manager:

A page from the Longman Language Activator with the entry for the word manager

Often the word thesaurus is used to denote a dictionary of synonyms or any kind of dictionary.

You can see a comparison between different types of dictionaries here.

What will make you a better English writer?


BELOW THIS TEXT YOU WILL FIND MY BLOG, THE LATEST POST FIRST. YOU CAN ALSO CHOOSE FROM THE LIST ON THE RIGHT.

This website is meant to be a resource especially for non-native writers in English to help them improve their writing skills.

Your English may be good, but perhaps you have not asked yourself which English you use, you have never reflected on the difference between compare to and compare with or realised that you wrote amount where you should have written number.

Perhaps you are a doctoral student planning your thesis. Or you are a professor writing a book or a research paper for an international journal. Maybe you have written a manual and feel that the language is not exactly what you would like it to be. Or you just want to have your CV or a cover letter checked for errors.

What I can do for you

In this blog you will get useful tips on writing in English. Through my long experience as a copyeditor I have learnt the typical errors that writers make and what linguistic problems they often meet.

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The CEO of a Swedish multinational firm was once asked what language the company used. The answer was, “Bad English”.

Most users of English are non-native speakers and, not surprisingly, the language used is often, as the Swedish manager put it, bad English.

What’s the problem?

Communicating in a second language often involves ambiguity and misunderstanding and can eventually lead to serious problems. An example can be found in the sentence you just read: The English word eventually means in the end, finally, sooner or later, while the Swedish word eventuellt means possibly, potentially.

Not connected…

Can you connect with your readers? Bad English may prevent you from being published. And if you manage to be published in spite of language deficiencies, your readers will doubt your professionality. Poor language will make them lose interest in what you are trying to say; they may even mistrust your message or simply not understand it. 

The difference between good and bad English is crucial. My role as copyeditor is to make sure that bad English is transformed into good English. I do so in close collaboration with you, the writer. Together we will make you a better English writer. We are on the same page!

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Stepping stones in Pompeii, Italy

Note: When there is an asterisk (*) in front of a word or a phrase in my posts here, it means that the word or phrase is wrong or not accepted language. You can find examples here, here and here.

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