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Encyclopedia > Mass noun
It has been suggested that Count noun be merged into this article or section. (Discuss)

In linguistics, a mass noun (also uncountable noun or non-count noun) is a type of common noun that cannot be modified by a number without specifying a unit of measurement. Thus, depending on one's epistemology, it can be said of mass nouns either (a) that they have singular but no plural forms, or (b) that the grammatical concept of singular-vs-plural does not apply to them. Count nouns, on the other hand, have plural forms, and can be modified by numerals and quantifiers like "one", "two", "every", "most", etc. Image File history File links Please see the file description page for further information. ... A count noun is a noun which is itself counted, or the units which are used to count it. ... Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. ... A noun, or noun substantive, is a part of speech which can co-occur with (in)definite articles and attributive adjectives, and function as the head of a noun phrase. ... The word singular may refer to one of several concepts. ... Look up Plural in Wiktionary, the free dictionary Plural is a grammatical number, typically referring to more than one of the referent in the real world. ... A count noun is a noun which is itself counted, or the units which are used to count it. ... A numeral is a symbol or group of symbols that represents a number. ... In language and logic, quantification is a construct that specifies the extent of validity of a predicate, that is the extent to which a predicate holds over a range of things. ...

Note that the lack of a distinct plural form is not a sufficient criterion by itself to determine that a noun is a mass noun, because several English count nouns have no inflection in the plural, including "deer" and "sheep". For example, the singular and plural forms of the word "deer" are identical, but it is grammatically acceptable to say "three deer", "a deer", or "several deer". Therefore, "deer" is a count noun. On the other hand "rice" is an uncountable noun: not only is there no plural "rices", but "three rice", "a rice", and "several rice" all appear wrong to native English speakers.


Relating grammatical number to physical discreteness

It is often erroneously thought that mass nouns are used only to represent substances not easily quantified by a number, such as water. Mass nouns like "furniture" and "cutlery", which represent easily quantified objects, show that the mass/count distinction should be thought of as a grammatical property of the expressions themselves, rather than as a property of the substances they represent. For example, the same set of chairs can be referred to as "seven chairs" and as "furniture". Thus it is the expressions, not the entities or substances that they refer to, which can be characterized as either "mass" or "count". The distinction between what words can (like "too much") or can't (like "a dozen") be used with mass nouns is solely a matter of what expressions a mass noun can grammatically co-occur with, not to the objects and substances which mass nouns may refer to.

For an interesting illustration of the principle that the count/non-count distinction lies not in an object but rather in the name for the object, consider the English words "fruit" and "vegetables". The objects that these words describe are, objectively speaking, similar (that is, they're all edible plant parts); yet the word "fruit" is (usually) non-count, whereas "vegetables" is a plural count form. One can see that the difference is in the language, not in the reality of the objects. Meanwhile, German has a general word for "vegetables" that, like English "fruit", is (usually) non-count: das Gemüse. British English has a slang word for "vegetables" that acts the same way: "veg" [rhymes with "edge"].

The work of logicians like Godehard Link and Manfred Krifka established that the mass/count distinction can be given a precise, mathematical definition in terms of quantization and cumulativity. Godehard Link is a professor of logic and philosophy of science at the University of Munich. ... In linguistics, a quantized expression is such that, if it is true of some entity, then it is never true of any proper subparts of that entity. ... Cumulativity In linguistic semantics, an expression X is said to have cumulative reference just in case the following holds: If X is true of a and of b, as well, then it is also true of the combination of a and b. ...

Some illustrative examples of English mass nouns

  • water
  • sand
  • furniture
  • meat
  • knowledge
  • software
  • mathematics
  • advice
  • traffic
  • travel
  • information
  • equipment
  • blood
  • music

Plural of a mass noun to mean types of it

Some speakers of English use a plural form of non-count nouns when there are mixed types. For example, "paint" is a mass noun, but in the following sentence, "paints" means "types of paint": "There are several paints that will offer good protection in this climate." Another example of the same idea: "Today at the market I bought two different peanut butters." (That is, two different brands of peanut butter.)

Multiple senses for one noun

Some nouns can have both mass noun and count noun senses. For example, "fire" as a mass noun generally refers to fire in general ("I hate fire"). As a count noun, however, "a fire" refers to a specific conflagration ("There's a fire upstairs" or possibly "There are fires upstairs", generally not "There's fire upstairs"), even if it's an especially large one, as in forest fires. In some situations, either a mass noun or a count noun can be used, with a count noun expressing more focused and specific fires, and a mass noun expressing a more vague "fire". A large bonfire. ... {{alternateuses}} The Old Fire burning in the San Bernardino Mountains (image taken from the International Space Station) A wildfire, also known as a forest fire, vegetation fire, grass fire, brush fire, peat fire (gambut in Indonesia), bushfire (in Australasia), or hill fire, is an uncontrolled fire often occurring in wildland...

"I see fire." (mass)
"I see a fire." (count)
"There is fire everywhere!" (mass)
"There are fires everywhere!" (count)

The difference between mass and count can be more subtle when phrased in the negative, however.

"There is no fire in this area." (could be either)
"There is not fire in this area." (mass)
"There is not a fire in this area." (count)
"There are no fires in this area." (count)

Another example: although "apple" is usually used in its count-noun sense, it can also be used as a mass noun:

"There is apple on the floor."

In some languages, such as Japanese, all nouns are effectively mass nouns and require a measure word to use. Measure words, in linguistics, are words (or morphemes) that are used in combination with a numeral to indicate the count of nouns. ...

Data used in a mass-noun sense

The word data is often used as a mass noun, especially by people who work with computers. In formal writing it typically retains its original grammatical role as the plural of "datum", but treating it as a mass noun is becoming increasingly popular. In general, data consist of propositions that reflect reality. ...

Other examples

Some other mass nouns have their origins as plural count nouns: spaghetti in Italian is the plural of spaghetto, but in English it has become firmly established as a mass noun, making both "I want five spaghetti" and "I want a spaghetti" grammatically incorrect. Spaghetti in a bowl. ...

There is also a tendency in colloquial American English to treat some mass nouns as countable, e.g. "behaviors" for "behavior" or "accommodations" for "accommodation".

This should not be confused with nouns that can genuinely be used as either mass or count nouns, such as the aforementioned "fire". Thus, the following are all correct:

"There are sands in the hourglass." (count)
"There is sand in the hourglass." (mass)
"There is a sand in the hourglass." (count)

Fish: a special noun

The noun "fish" is an especially intriguing case, illustrating both the principle "Plural of a mass noun to mean types of it" and the principle "Multiple senses for one noun". The plural of the count noun sense is usually "fish" (uninflected, as seen with "two deer" or "five sheep"), but it can also be "fishes" [archaic], while "fish" as a meat is a mass noun, and "fishes" can mean "types of fish."

In addition, sometimes count-noun forms are used for fish not intended for food, while mass-noun forms are used for fish that one would eat.

"The net is full of salmon." (mass)
"The net is full of sharks." (count — used when sharks are not perceived as edible)
"The net is full of shark." (mass — used when sharks are perceived as edible)

The much-or-many and less-or-fewer distinctions

Another difference between mass and count nouns is the distinction between the words much and many and between less and fewer.

"We have too much furniture." (mass)
"We have too many chairs." (count)
"We used to have less furniture." (mass)
"We used to have fewer chairs." (count)

However, many English speakers use less for both types; in recent years many supermarkets have been criticised for their signs above checkouts reading "10 items or less", as the proper grammatical form would be "10 items or fewer": "items" is a count noun, and a mass noun cannot be given a number in any case. In American English in particular, "less" is used more commonly than "fewer" to describe count nouns, although this usage is considered incorrect by prescriptivist grammarians. Additionally, in casual speech, a construction like "10 objects or less" isn't typically heard; "less than 10 objects" is far more common. Constructions such as "10 or less of the objects" are still pervasive, however. Regardless, even in American English, this usage is frowned upon, and is typically considered an idiosyncratic, rather than dialectical, variation. Exterior of typical European supermarket (a Tesco Extra) Exterior of typical North American supermarket (a Safeway) A typical supermarket in Hong Kong. ... English language spread in the United States. ... Idiosyncrasy is a seldom used word defined as a structural or behavioral characteristic peculiar to an individual or group. ... A dialect (from the Greek word διάλεκτος, dialektos) is a variety of a language used by people from a particular geographic area. ...

Confounding of collective noun and mass noun

There is often confusion about, and confounding of, the two different concepts of collective noun and mass noun. Generally, collective nouns are not mass (non-count) nouns, but rather are a special subset of count nouns. However, the term "collective noun" is often used to mean "mass noun" (even in some dictionaries), because users confound two different kinds of verb number invariability: (a) that seen with mass nouns such as "water" or "furniture", with which only singular verb forms are used because the constituent matter is grammatically nondiscrete (although it may ["water"] or may not ["furniture"] be etically nondiscrete); and (b) that seen with collective nouns, which is the result of the metonymical shift between the group and its (both grammatically and etically) discrete constituents. Collective nouns are subject-specific words used to define a grouping of people, animals, objects or concepts. ... A count noun is a noun which is itself counted, or the units which are used to count it. ... In linguistics, a collective noun is a word used to define a group of objects, where objects can be people, animals, inanimate things, concepts, or other things. ...

Some words, including "mathematics" and "physics", have developed true mass-noun senses despite having grown from count-noun roots.

See also

A count noun is a noun which is itself counted, or the units which are used to count it. ... Collective nouns are subject-specific words used to define a grouping of people, animals, objects or concepts. ... Measure words, in linguistics, are words (or morphemes) that are used in combination with a numeral to indicate the count of nouns. ...

External links

  • The Mavens Word of the Day: less/fewer
  • Semantic Archives: Mass nouns, count nouns and non-count nouns
  • F.J. Pelletier L.K. Schubert (2001) Mass Expressions in D. Gabbay & F. Guenthner (eds) Handbook of Philosophical Logic, Vol. 10

  Results from FactBites:
What is a mass noun? (123 words)
A mass noun is a noun whose referents are not thought of as separate entities.
Some nouns may permit treatment as either count or mass nouns.
In English, salad may be treated as either a count or mass noun, as evidenced by the acceptability of the following expressions:
What is a Noun? (1986 words)
In this sentence the possessive noun "squirrels"' is used to modify the noun "nest" and the noun phrase "the squirrels' nest" is the object of the infinitive phrase "to locate."
A concrete noun is the opposite of a abstract noun.
A non-countable noun (or mass noun) is a noun which does not have a plural form, and which refers to something that you could (or would) not usually count.
  More results at FactBites »



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