Tuesday, September 13, 2016

"How much?" vs. "How many?"

Can you believe it? I haven't blogged since April... and it's been amazing!
You heard me right. I've been busy enjoying life and summer. On the scale of life, family time has definitely outweighed work time. This doesn't mean I haven't been thinking math. I have enjoyed lurking on Twitter and reading blog posts here and there. Keep up the great work everyone.

So, I'm dusting off the blog and wiping away the cobwebs so I can share just one gift of parenting a six year-old, learning the English language. Well, at least one part of the English language: when to use "how many?" and when to use "how much?"

I provide my son with a healthy amount of questions that involve estimation. I know, big shocker. So it shouldn't surprise you (or me for that matter) when he fires them back at me. However, it's extremely interesting that most of the time he begins his questions with "how much".

Here are some examples. Hey Dad, I wonder
  • How much air is in the tire?
  • How much pumps of air the tire will need?
  • How much miles it is to the beach?
  • How much pancakes will we make?
Can you spot which questions need help?
What advice would you offer a six-year old (and his dad) so he is better equipped to know when to either use "much" or "many"?

Here's what I offered him:
If it something you can count, use "how many"
  • How many pancakes will we make? 10
  • How many eggs are in a dozen? 12
  • How many pumps did it take to fill the tire? 6
  • How many minutes until we leave for soccer practice? 5
If it is something that is difficult to count, use "how much"
  • How much air is in the tire? not much
  • How much sunblock did you put on? only on my face
  • How much ketchup would you like? a lot
I'm more fond of my criteria for using "how many", but I'm not entirely convinced my criteria for "how much" will win me English/Math teacher of the year. I know there is a way to quantify the air inside a tire. There is a way to quantify the amount of sunblock applied. Help me make the criteria better and easily comprehensible for a six-year old.

Hope the school year is going well!



  1. I think I've cracked it... it's whether or not you have specified the units in the question. Miles, pancakes, vs amount of air. You could rephrase how much air is in the tire to how many molecules of carbin dioxide, or how many poundss of pressure,how many teaspoons of ketchup,etc :)

    1. Thanks Webmaster. I definitely could rephrase it like you suggested. My concern is that it's a little much for a six year-old to wrap their brain around. What do you think of Tracy's thought below, making that connection to units?

    2. Yes,I guess I didn't quite pass the 'explain it to me like I'm 6' test, but yes,I think it can be done. I agree with tracy that he is making an over generalization error, but still think that it comes down to whether units are specified in the question as being what determines whether you use 'much' or 'many' and not ease if counting. How many grains of sugar is a completely valid question. You would not ask 'how much grains' just because it is hard to count,you'd still use how many because you specified the unit. Maybe, if he asks 'how much pancakes' say, "I think I need to count pancakes (the unit) to answer that question, so you'd like to know 'how many pancakes?' ...From your examples he seems to be over-generalizing using 'much' so i wouldn't even address anything other than when he should use many 'much'. And that advice is from a math perspective and not a parental perspective! I think he'll figure it out regardless :) and my name is sarah btw :) not sure why I came up as webmaster. .. I think I had some sort of username at one time but I have no idea for what or how to change it! Lol. Thanks for this discussion. loving everyone's comments.

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  2. Is the idea of something being infinitely divisible too much for a six-year old? (Can you tell I don't have kids?:). But seriously, it's like the difference between less and fewer, no?

  3. Amie Albrecht (@nomad_penguin)September 14, 2016 at 2:53 AM

    'How many' or 'How much'?
    'Number' or 'Amount'?
    'Fewer' or 'Less'?

    To me, the first in each pair is for countable quantities/nouns. The second in each pair is for uncountable quantities/nouns.

    So, yes, I agree with your explanation.

    1. I definitely like the idea of "countable" for "many". See Tracy's thoughts below for the connection to units.

  4. I love this. I think you're fine. This example might help. Both of these sentences are correct:

    How much sugar would you like in your coffee?
    How many teaspoons of sugar would you like in your coffee?

    Ease of countability is really where it's at. While it is technically possible to count grains of sugar and there are ways to measure sugar accurately using standard units (grams, tsp, packets), if we don't specify a unit and it's a hard thing to count, we ask how much. We leave it open to responses that range from casual to precise. In this case, I actually think the polite thing to do to ask how much sugar and leave it up to the person who cares how sweet the coffee is to name their unit. It's a little bit like the "we can always add but can't subtract" thing. We can always add the specificity of a unit and a quantity later, if needed. But it would be weird to ask a question that starts with a specific unit in a How Many? formulation and hear back "only on my face," right?

  5. What I'm saying is, I think he's using the most general language because that's a really smart thing to do. It applies to the largest set (countable and not-countable), even if it sounds a little funny for the countables. He's expressing meaning, that he wants to know something about how much, and then he listens in for how that amount is described. Better to start vague and then figure out what units we use to describe what kinds of things.

  6. Sorry for the multiple comments--went back and reread. I think you're right that if he's saying "How much miles" he recognizes the appropriate unit and names it. And he knows he can get a numeric answer. So it's perfectly appropriate to teach him that's a time to ask How many?, because we can count miles. That's really a grammar lesson, not a math one. His estimation is already on point.

    1. Never apologize for multiple comments, Tracy. I truly appreciate your thoughts. I like your idea to "start vague and then figure out what units we use to describe what kinds of things."

      Thanks for helping me think through this.

  7. Do the words discrete/continuous come into play here in an informal way? Love the ideas people are sharing and love the discussion about ways we talk about quantity.

  8. I have struggled with much vs many since my freshman was little and I swear he passed his misuse of the term much onto his younger brother who is now in 5th grade. It has driven me crazy for years and I've corrected them both a million times and explained the difference. LOL No advice, but they both do well in math despite the misuse.

  9. I haven't thought it through completely, but this seems at the surface level a discrete vs continuous problem. If the variable is discrete, then we use 'many'. If the variable is continuous, then we use 'much'.

    If we count it...many
    If we measure it...much

    still might be too much for a 6 year old.