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August 6th, 2008

I approve this message / amount of apples is or are?

by Barbara Wallraff

Ronald Horwitz, of Farmington Hills, Mich., writes: “I am old-fashioned enough to respect the use of prepositions -- or have they fallen by the wayside in modern usage? It just does not sound right to hear a political candidate say in a commercial, ‘I approve this message.’ Shouldn’t it be ‘I approve OF this message’?”

Dear Ronald: I’m with you as far as respecting prepositions goes. But sometimes verbs mean different things with and without prepositions. Consider “I write English” and “I write about English” -- or “I smell your dog” and “I smell of your dog.”

“I approve of this message” means, roughly, “I like it.” In contrast, “I approve this message” means “I give it my stamp of approval.” The latter is certainly what I hope candidates mean to say.

Paul Kays, of Hendersonville, N.C., writes: “Can you tell me if this sentence is grammatically correct? ‘Between 5 and 6 p.m., the storm moved from Flat Rock east across the county, where a significant amount of apples is grown.’ Should the next-to-last word be ‘is’ or ‘are’?”

Dear Paul: I love your question, because the sentence you’re asking about is so ordinary and garden-variety (orchard-variety?) that no one would imagine it could give anyone trouble. But it brought me up short too, and what to do about it isn’t obvious.

The rule of thumb about phrases like “amount of apples” is that if the crux of the meaning is the first, singular word -- “amount” -- then the phrase should be treated as singular, so the verb should be “is.” But if the second, plural word is the crucial one -- if we’re supposed to be picturing individual apples -- the phrase should be treated as plural, so the verb should be “are.”

The context here seems agricultural; the writer must have been thinking of apples by the bushel or ton. So “amount ... is grown” would seem to be right. Then again, bushels and tons and other amounts aren’t “grown” -- apples are. When you think about it this way, “... apples are grown” seems right.

Which is it? I’d say neither, because, as you noticed, the sentence sounds peculiar whether you use “is” or “are.” This is always a clue that it might be a good idea to change something else. That would be “amount.” Verb or no verb, “amount of apples” is clumsy. I checked a number of reference books to see if they had any objections to it. The closest I came was in a 1942 edition of Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms, which I inherited from my father. This and similar old books make careful distinctions unlike anything you’ll find in recent thesauruses. While comparing “sum,” “amount,” “aggregate,” “total,” “whole,” “number” and “quantity,” my old Webster’s says, “‘amount’ denotes the result reached by combining all the sums, or weights, or measures that form a whole; as, the ‘amount’ of one’s purchases; the ‘amount’ of cotton raised in one year.” That seems to hint that the word is close to “total” in meaning -- not what we want. But how about “quantity”? The book says, “‘Quantity’ in general use is employed chiefly of things which are measured in bulk, even though they can be counted; as, a ‘quantity’ of apples.” Yes! That’s it! “... where a quantity of apples are grown.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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