Topic 13 – Expression of quantity

Topic 13 – Expression of quantity

In my first section I am going to include a definition of the notion of quantity, and will establish a difference between countable and uncountable nouns, and between singular and plural. In my second section I will deal with the expression of quantity through numerals. Then I will move on to deal with indefinite pronouns. My fourth section will be devoted to look at quantifying pronouns. I will also deal with some determiners expressing quantity. Finally, in my fifth section I will have a look at some partitive constructions.

I would like to start this topic by including a simple definition of the notion of quantity. The notion of quantity refers to the number or the amount of items we are dealing with, and it is the answer to questions such as How much…? or How many…?. Obviously, they both ask for a similar information, except for a specific difference about “the exact amount of”, which can be definite (one, two…) or indefinite (some, any…). Answers are drawn directly from different sources, such as nouns (one book), pronouns (everybody), determiners (the, my, some, each), partitive constructions (a glass of milk), etc.

In order to express quantity it is important to have a clear idea of the notions of countable and uncountable nouns and of the notions of singular and plural. Although several different interpretations have been made about countable and uncountable nouns, I am going to opt for the one which is most widely accepted. Countable nouns are the names of objects, people, ideas… that can be counted. Therefore they have a plural form and we can use numbers and the article a/an with them. On the contrary, uncountable or mass nouns are the names of materials, liquids, abstract qualities, collections and other things which can be seen as masses without clear boundaries, and not as separate objects. We cannot use numbers with uncountable nouns and most are singular with no plural. We do not usually use a/an with uncountable nouns, though there are some exceptions. Some determiners can only be used with countable nouns and others can only be used with uncountable nouns. However, some nouns have countable and uncountable uses, often with a difference of meaning.

After seeing the difference between countable and uncountable nouns, let’s see the difference between singular and plural, which can be considered as a way in itself of expressing quantity. Singular relates to the quantity of ONE for count nouns, to the unique referent for most proper nouns, and to undifferentiated amount for non-count nouns. Plural, on the other hand, relates to the quantity of MORE THAN ONE for count nouns, to the unique referent for some proper noun (the Canaries=the Canary Islands), and to individual operational units that reflect plural composition (scissors, stairs).

Let’s move to the second section, dealing with the expression of quantity through numerals. The expression of quantity by means of numerals is given by three sets:

  • Cardinal numbers (one, two, three…) give the exact amount of something by means of whole numbers.
  • Ordinal numbers (first, second…) express the sequence order of items.
  • Fractions (one third)

Numerals can function as pronouns and as determiners.

150.000 people died of cancer in Britain last year

One third of British adults are still smoking.

United Kingdom is the first European country in the list of obese countries; Spain is the second

I am going to move on to my second section. A second way of expressing quantity is by means of indefinite pronouns. Some of these can also function as determiners. Within this group we can establish two different categories:

  1. Universal pronouns: we have to consider the universal compound indefinites (everybody, someone, nothing), where the suffixes –ONE and –BODY are used for people, -THING for objects and -WHERE for places. These words are used to express totality or lack of exception. All these pronouns take singular verbs. However they have a collective reference and usually entail a reference to a number of three or more.

Everybody in England is being encouraged by the government to take more holidays in their own country

EACH is used with count nouns. It can appear alone as a pronoun, but it is common to find the expression EACH ONE.

Each British person spends 25 hours a week watching TV

Quantifiers like the compounds EVERY-, EACH and EVERY can be termed distributive, because they pick out the members of a set singly rather than considering them in the mass. It is for this reason that they are singular in number.

BOTH and ALL are used for count nouns in plural.

All British teenagers have a mobile phone

Both England and Ireland have greatly improved their standards of living

ALL is also used for noncount nouns.

All Britain is suffering a rise in prices.

ALL refers to quantities of more than two. BOTH refers to dual number.

Both the Queen and Prince Charles are trying to improve the country’s image

BOTH and ALL may be followed by a determiner, in which case it is optional to insert the preposition OF (all of the children; both of their bothers). Grammatically, when followed by OF, ALL and BOTH are pronouns. However, when they are followed by a determiner they are predeterminers (all the boys).

  1. Partitive pronouns: within this group, we can distinguish three different subclasses:

a) Assertive partitive indefinites: they express a positive but uncertain number of identity. SOME is used for plural count and noncount nouns. It may be a determiner or a pronoun. As a determiner, SOME also occurs with singular count nouns, especially temporal nouns. With other singular nouns, SOME is less usual and has the meaning of “a certain” or “some… or other”

British people spend some money on travelling

Some people drink more coffee than tea

Some day, the importance of English in the world will decrease

I had some strange feeling about going to London

b) Non-assertive partitive indefinites: they express two ideas at the same time but still an uncertain number of identity since their basic meaning is negative. The contexts which require the ANY series involve the negatives and the interrogatives. Any can be followed by noncount or count nouns. It can function as a pronoun. ANY is distinguished from EITHER in representing a choice between 3 or more, whereas EITHER limits the choice to two.

I don’t want any sugar in my tea

Do you need any help?

I haven’t told any of my relatives / either of my parents

c) Negative partitive pronouns: they include NOBODY and NO ONE for personal reference in count singular nouns, whereas NOTHING and NOWHERE have non-personal reference.

Nobody in Britain would eat biscuits with their right hand, as it is impolite

There is nothing British can do about London pollution

NONE and NEITHER are used for singular count nouns, and NONE can also be used for plural count nouns and noncount nouns. They can be followed by an of-partitive. NEITHER has a dual reference.

None of the students learnt to drive before the age of 16

Neither of the students learnt to drive on the right side of the road

Up to this point I have been dealing with indefinite pronouns. Now I am going to move on to deal with quantifying pronouns. Within the quantifying pronouns grammarians usually include the universal and partitive pronouns, and numerals, which I have seen in my previous sections. Moreover, within this group we also include the so-called enumerative quantifiers, functioning both as pronouns and as determiners. Some of them are MUCH, MANY, LITTLE, FEW, PLENTY OF, A LOT OF, A GREAT DEAL OF, ENOUGH and SEVERAL.

MANY means “a large number” and is used with plural count nouns. In this sense, it contrasts with A FEW / FEW, meaning “a small number”. On the other hand, MUCH means “a large amount” and is used with noncount nouns. In this sense, it contrasts with “A LITTLE”, which means “small amount”.

Britain has many pubs around the country but a few discos

British devote much time to gardening but a little time to housework

MUCH and MANY have acquired some non-assertive force, so they are more often used with a negative or interrogative implication. In the affirmative, there is a preference for other open-class quantifiers, such as A GREAT DEAL, PLENTY OF, A LOT OF, ETC. Syntactically, these quantifiers consist of a noun of quantity (lot, deal, amount…) followed by OF and often preceded by the indefinite article.

SEVERAL is always used with plural count nouns.

British children have several weeks off throughout the school year

ENOUGH is used with both count and noncount nouns.

In Britain there are not enough doctors to assist all of the population

There is no money enough to improve the education conditions

Now I am going to move on to deal with some determiners which express quantity. We can find determiners such as HALF, which can occur with plural count nouns and noncount nouns.

Half British population is obese

He visited half of the British museums

Here we also include the so called multipliers (once, twice, three times, double…). They can combine with singular and plural heads.

Spanish people spend three times more money on eating out than British do

Now in my last section I am going to have a look at some partitive constructions. Both count and noncount nouns can enter partitive constructions, that is, constructions denoting a part of a whole. These constructions can be expressed by a wide range of constructions formed by A + noun + OF, being the most frequent A PIECE OF.

Noncount nouns denote undifferentiated mass. However, the expression of quantity and thus countability can be achieved by means of certain general partitive nouns, in particular PIECE, BIT, ITEM… followed by an of-phrase.

Doctors offered population a piece of advice to prevent bird flu

In addition to these general partitives there are also some restricted typical partitives which form expressions with specific concrete noncount nouns, such as:






With count nouns, some specific partitive nouns are used:





Fractional partition can also be expressed by such general quantitative items as HALF, WHOLE OF, etc.

A quarter of the cake

The whole of the sandwich

The measure partitives are quantifiers which express precise quantities denoting length, area, volume and weight.

LENGTH: foot, metre, yard, mile…

AREA: acre, hectare

VOLUME: litre, pint, gallon

WEIGHT: ounce, pound, kilo, ton.

All in all, there are many different ways of expressing quantity through different devices and semantic and syntactic choices. Within this topic I have looked at the definition of quantity, the distinction between count and noncount nouns and between singular and plural, the numeral, the indefinite pronouns, quantifying pronouns and determiners and some partitive constructions.


Downing, A & P. Locke, (2002). A University Course in English Grammar. Routledge: London.

Leech, G & J. Svartvik, (1996). A Communicative Grammar of English. Longman: London

Quirk, R & R. Greembaum, (1973). A University Grammar of English. Longman: London