Talk:Mass noun

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Mass nouns in languages other than English[edit]

This page would benefit by having information on the presence or absence of mass nouns in other languages, how they operate, and how they can be ditinguished. — Hippietrail 12:29, 19 Jun 2004 (UTC)

Logicians and linguists[edit]

The phrase "The work of logicians like Godehard Link and Manfred Krifka established that ... " incorrectly suggests that both scholars are logicians. In fact, only Godehard Link is a logician, Manfred Krifka is a linguist. You cannot be a logician if you don't have a single article on logic. (Krifka's list of publications is to be found here: —Preceding unsigned comment added by Brooklyn358 (talkcontribs) 00:40, 12 February 2009 (UTC)

Mass vs collective[edit]

It might be worth adding a note to redirect people who are looking for collective noun. On Wiktionary I'm finding people constantly using the term "collective noun" when they are really talking about the idea of "uncountable noun" / "mass noun" / "non-count noun" — Hippietrail 12:36, 30 Jul 2004 (UTC)

[Note: a discussion of mass-vs-collective has since been added at Collective noun.] Lumbercutter 18:57, 10 December 2006 (UTC)
Obviously already dealt with, but if people use "collective noun" to refer to "uncountable nouns", the misunderstanding is taking place at the other article and not this one. — LlywelynII 14:06, 26 January 2014 (UTC)

how bout addressing american vs. british english?[edit]

I'm no grammarian but some of this seems like just a UK issue. I don't know who makes the call when something passes from common use into the realm of acceptable grammer but in America if someone made a to-do over "10 items or fewer" they'd get laughed outt the supermarket. On this side of the ocean, "10 items or less" is correct as far as I know/can tell. Anyone know what I'm getting at? That at which I'm getting/attempting to get?

But seriously, On issues of grammar where UK and American English may differ (not to mention other varieties of English) what is what is wikipedia's position? I suppose there should be a way to address both, huh? If anyone could weigh in on this, hit up my talk page, that'd be awesome. thanks, Kzzl:talk 17:29, 16 Aug 2004 (UTC)

WP:ENGVAR. — LlywelynII 14:07, 26 January 2014 (UTC)

Addressing Idioms[edit]

I believe the article should address the fact that in different areas, different nouns are considered mass. This might be obvious, but it is not addressed (to my knowledge) in the article. For instance, in Idaho, USA, "potato" is a mass noun, whereas nearly everywhere else, you would not say "I grow potato on my farm." You would say "I grow potatoes on my farm." I'll add it in myself if no one objects. GofG ||| Contribs 14:49, 9 March 2006 (UTC)

well, I did my thing[edit]

I put in my two cents. I hope interested parties find it acceptable. If not, let me know. Kzzl 17:38, 16 Aug 2004 (UTC)


The word "data" is often used as a mass noun, especially by people who work with computers, but this usage is still controversial.

I don't think this usage is (so) controversial anymore. [[User:Poccil|Peter O. (Talk)]] 06:07, Oct 4, 2004 (UTC)
I agree that this isn't so controversial. Note that "datum" has gone archaic. Instead, we use "data point" or "piece of data". For most usage, you can split it with such fine-grained detail that there is no relevance whether the split lands on one side of a datum or another. Robert Rapplean (talk) 17:55, 4 September 2008 (UTC)
When would "data" not be a mass noun? Granted, it may have a very old root in the singular word "datum", but wouldn't the question be easily settled by how modern language indicates a very specific quantity and also what verb tense is used when referring to general quantities? For example, one wouldn't say, "We recorded 87 data," or "The data are recorded in the log." Rather, one would say, "We recorded 17 points of data," or "The data is recorded in the log." Data is a mass noun like Jell-O, skin, snot, or space. Struhs (talk) 18:31, 29 September 2009 (UTC)
There are still contexts in which you will find enforcement of the restriction of data to its count sense. For example, in the medical literature, AMA (American Medical Association) Manual of Style still advocates this style. In these cases you do in fact say "The data are recorded in the log." But it is generally true that many medical authors, especially younger ones, find this enforcement a bit stodgy and needless. Quercus solaris (talk) 16:27, 30 September 2009 (UTC)
I disagree. As noted above, the AMA and other linguistic sumpsimuses actually do mind and (contra Struhs above) treatment of data as a plural remains more common. — LlywelynII 14:14, 26 January 2014 (UTC)
Although 'data' always functions a a singular in terms like 'data collection' or 'data transmission'.
Just to confuse things, in professions where the word 'datum' is still commonly used, such as civil engineering, the usual plural is 'datums'. Martin Hogbin (talk) 18:23, 26 February 2014 (UTC)
Re engineering, quite right—for example, in GD&T, the plural of 'datum' meaning 'datum surface' is always 'datums', not 'data'. Re "always functions as a singular in terms like 'data collection' or 'data transmission'", that is actually not the case, although there is a reason why it seems so on the surface (given below); what is actually happening is that it is functioning either as a singular attributive noun or a plural attributive noun, depending on how each user is mentally parsing it, but there is no inflectional difference to differentiate the two (singular mass sense vs plural count sense), so one person cannot tell from that phrase alone (without surrounding usage context) how the other person mentally parsed it. And regarding plural attributives, some users of English use them more readily than others. For example, although "NSAIDs use" (meaning "use of NSAIDs") is acceptable and understood in any variety of English, some users find it more idiomatic than others (who would lean toward "NSAID use" by default). This is why "data transmission" strikes many ears as "they are using 'data' in the singular there", even though the listener/reader actually can't tell from the inflection alone how the speaker/writer was mentally treating it (unless other nearby uses of 'data' as subject or object reveal it). But this is academic enough that I wouldn't even have bothered to post it except for completeness of analysis "for the record" for other readers who come here (such as after a web search on the topic of 'data' sg-vs-pl). Quercus solaris (talk) 18:58, 30 March 2014 (UTC)

substances vs. expressions[edit]

I reverted the change made by Boredzo, reinserting the passange "It is often errouneously thought that.." (in fact the word "erroneously" was not part of the original edit) Removing it substantially changed the meaning of the paragraph, and made it inconsistent. The point is that mass nouns *cannot* be defined in terms of what they refer to, but must rather be defined with reference to their grammatical properties, such as co-occurrence restrictions. I also made some other additions to the same paragraph to make this point clearer. --Neither 11:45, 7 September 2005 (UTC)

pluralized mass nouns[edit]

Not sure I see that the paragraph added by Corvun isn't covered by the one immediately following his. I also don't think it's accurate to say that the form "waters" intensifies the meaning of "water" or that "sands" intensifies "sand". In any case, he should give sources for that, and clarify what he means by such intensification. I vote for a revert.--Neither 10:38, 15 September 2005 (UTC)


I've never heard "laundry" used to mean "laundromat" before; is it at all possible we could replace this with some other, more common example? The current one is supported by, but a more universal example would be better. What about "fire" vs. "a fire"? -Silence 21:18, 15 September 2005 (UTC)

In the UK we would use "laundrette" rather than "laundromat", which I think is US-only usage (if I'm right in my understanding that a laundromat is a self-service establishment). A "laundry" would not normally be the same thing as a laundrette/laundromat, but would provide a full (wet) cleaning and pressing service, e.g. as might be found in a good hotel. Incidentally what do you call a dry-cleaners over there? (Think I may be getting off-topic a little here...) kingoftheshow 14:18, 24 October 2005 (UTC)
For what it's worth, Texas also has washaterias. Also, nothing is ever a US-only usage thanks to our good friends to the north and south. — LlywelynII 14:24, 26 January 2014 (UTC)
In the US a laundromat has self serve machines. A dry cleaner is also called a dry cleaners or the cleaners but never the cleaner. I have no idea why. Some laundromats have a laundry service where a person will wash clothes by the pound. Some collect dry cleaning for a dry cleaner to pick up and return. Some are attached to a dry cleaner. [Unsigned]
Generally people are going to say 'launder', 'wash', or 'dry clean' for clothes and not 'clean'. That said, "took+it+to+the+cleaner" plenty of people use the singular form. — LlywelynII 14:24, 26 January 2014 (UTC)

"10 items or less"[edit]

In the UK, Marks and Spencer, which considers itself to be a higher class of supermarket, has prided itself on its use of "10 items or fewer" aisles, and I think the practice has been spreading to other chains.

I was thinking about the grammar of "10 items or less" and I feel there may be an interpretation where it could be considered to be correct. Compare "Less [items] than 10 items" (which is technically incorrect) with "Less [stuff] than 10 items" (which reads correctly); if we accept that "less" is in comparison to an unspoken amount of stuff equivalent to 10 items, then it feels correct. Now consider "10 items or less [than 10 items]". If we take this to mean "10 items or less [stuff than 10 items]" it reads OK, but if we take it to mean "10 items or less [items than 10 items]" it doesn't - we would then need to use "fewer" instead.

Does this make any sense to anyone? It strikes me that "less" in this context is referring to something implied, and we can make a choice over whether that something is a count noun ("items") or an equivalent mass noun ("stuff"). Anyone out there want to put me right? kingoftheshow 14:37, 24 October 2005 (UTC)

This is similar to my thinking on this subject. (For the purposes of this argument, I will assume that the semantics of less and fewer are mutually exclusive, which is increasingly untrue).
If one assumes that the less in 10 items or less is a (comparitive) adjective, as you say, one could either say less or fewer because less isn't actually referring to anything (except possibly but not necessarily, by implication of the fact you are in a shop, shopping). Again, assuming it is an adjective, I would say less is more correct, because, in English, there is a presumption of uncountability (if one doesn't know whether what you are referring to is a count noun or not).
However, I don't actually think less is an adjective in 10 items or less. I believe it is a mass noun (which is supported by any sort of test you do on that sentence), as is used, for instance, in Ann had less than Bob, which makes this whole discussion moot. (Only less not fewer can be used as a noun and it is a noun in it's own right so it certainly cannot be an attribute of items.) Joe Llywelyn Griffith Blakesley talk contrib 13:49, 1 August 2006 (UTC)
You got it right in your second paragraph and then erred in the last. It's not a noun but a contraction of an implied "... than 10 items". — LlywelynII 14:38, 26 January 2014 (UTC)
Your gloss makes sense but you're fixing a non-problem. "Less" has been correct since Old English and only becomes improper per misguided prescriptivist rules. The proper solution is to ignore them, not contort yourself. The posh who would object in the first place won't be impressed by your linguistic gymnastics; they'd simply mark you among the hoi polloi who don't speak as they do and move on with their day. — LlywelynII 14:38, 26 January 2014 (UTC)


Does the use of the different forms depend on whether the speaker eats shark? Surely the criteria if it is intended to be eaten. Anybody have any ideas? Garethhamilton 19:48, 9 December 2005 (UTC)

  • If you refer to a "couple of dead sharks" as "shark," you're referring to the matter they're made of. And only indirectly to the "couple of dead sharks." What if a whale explodes on a beach? Then the beach is covered in whale. Although I don't think anyone would have the intent to eat it. 04:11, 2 August 2006 (UTC)
    • No doubt. But if you toss a line in a stream, you're more likely looking for "trout" than "trouts." I think the article clearly demonstrates that these English makes no sense at all, here as in so many places. --Jackrepenning (talk) 22:15, 2 September 2009 (UTC)


Are mass nouns both mass and proper/common?( 13:57, 25 June 2006 (UTC))

Food in general, beyond just fish[edit]

In general, partitive nouns for things that can be eaten are count nouns when they're not intended to be eaten, and mass nouns when they are. For example, if you cut up a few apples and put them in a bowl, they are "pieces of apples" if you're painting a still life, but "pieces of apple" if you intend to eat them. The fish example actually applies to lots of foods that aren't fish. suncrush Aug 16. 2006.

Suncrush is absolutely right about this, and the article needs to be revised to incorporate the fact that this principle applies to many other nouns. The "Fish" section will need to be changed so that it doesn't imply that this principle applies only to fish. The "specialness" about the word fish isn't that principle, but rather just that it has so darn many senses (noun-count-sg, noun-count-pl, noun-mass, noun-attributive/adj, verb-trans, verb-intrans) anchored on one little inflected form.
I haven't yet had time to fully rethink these issues and revise accordingly, but it will need to be done sometime. Lumbercutter 02:46, 12 December 2006 (UTC)

Fish and Fishes[edit]

Deleted the references to 'fishes' as a plural of a mass noun. The statement "the fishmonger had three fishes" sounds like a use of the achaic (or not so archaic depending on your point of view) plural of the count noun. The modern idiom would be something like "the fishmonger had three types of fish". 'Fishes' in the modern sense usually means 'species of fish' but that is probably beyond the scope of the article. ae7flux

Isn't the word "fishes" an archaic form found in the bible? [unsigned]
I'm pretty sure the Bible wasn't written in English. -Silence 00:40, 27 September 2005 (UTC)
Well, the questioner is referring to the canonical English translations such as KJV etc. Yes, the form "fishes" probably does appear therein. The relevant question is how it functioned syntactically both (a) back when that translation was written and (b) today. Lumbercutter 02:36, 12 December 2006 (UTC)
I'd go so far as to say he solely meant the KJV, although other Middle English and early modern English Bibles would have also included references to the loaves and fishes. — LlywelynII 14:58, 26 January 2014 (UTC)
Nope. "Fishes" remains (and has always been) more common than "types of" or "kind of fish". Of course, it's kind of ridiculous to talk about "modern idiom" in a sentence that mentions a "fishmonger"; the actual modern idiom would be something like "The fish guy only had three fish left". Not sure what your last point was getting at. If one were saying "three types of fish", that is precisely the meaning of "three species of fish" unless one meant "they've got one kind of fish but they can cook it three ways".
Now, all that said, none of that makes "fishes" the nonsensical "plural of a mass noun": it's the plural of a countable sense of the word "fish". — LlywelynII 14:58, 26 January 2014 (UTC)


I don't think the phrase "There is a sand in the hourglass" is correct - I would use the phrase "a grain of sand". However, I have heard the phrase "the desert sands" used. I think a different example should be given in that part of the article. Aaronak 21:01, 20 October 2006 (UTC)

Agreed. I think the whole business of exemplifying things is going a bit too far in this page anyway. i suggest that we tidy it up. Neither 05:05, 21 October 2006 (UTC)
Probably right about exemplifying things, but y'all's take on sand is wrong. "A grain of sand" is definition 1e and "the sand of a sand-glass or hour-glass; also... a grain of this" over at the OED. That said, it is less common. — LlywelynII 15:08, 26 January 2014 (UTC)
I think the phrase 'desert sands' is not referring to the individual grains of sand, and therefore isn't relevant. It would be saying something like 'there are many meats on the table.' It doesn't mean you can say 'I want a meat.' The two uses are different. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talkcontribs) 02:30, 28 March 2007
"I don't think the phrase "There is a sand in the hourglass" is correct": I think it is correct. That's the whole point of this article. The sand in the hourglass isn't countable. The reason grain is a count noun is that one uses it when there is a countable number of grains. One doesn't refer to sand in terms of grains when there is as much as hourglasses hold. RatnimSnave 15:36, 8 November 2007 (UTC)
No, you can't have "a sand in the hourglass" – it is just sand (is the preceding comment perhaps an accidental reversal of what was meant...?). "A sand" (like "a wine", "an oil", "a meat") is however used when comparing different kinds of sand – a red sand, a yellow sand, a coarse sand, a silicaceous sand, a shell sand. "The sands of the desert" surely means all the kinds of sand in the desert, like "the wines of France", or as above, "meats on the table".
I don't think it is true that "grain" is strictly a count noun. It can be treated both as a count noun and as an uncountable one. "How much grain is in the barn?" is correct[] and is the mass form, while "How many grains are in my hand?" is also correct[] and is the count form. "Sand" is not practically countable, so only has the mass form. Richard New Forest (talk) 20:09, 23 October 2008 (UTC)
You can have a sand in the hourglass as sand is easily countable, however boring to actually count. Any native English speaker would understand what you meant. That said, it is an uncommon enough expression of the idea that many would feel you were expressing yourself oddly or "improperly". — LlywelynII 15:08, 26 January 2014 (UTC)


Cattle is certainly not a collective noun; collective nouns are words like pride (of lions), herd (of cattle), flock (of sheep), and so on. Cattle is a mass noun and is in every respect like other English mass nouns, except for the peculiarity of plural agreement ("cattle are", not *"cattle is"), whereas most English mass nouns have singular agreement ("water is", not *"water are"; but compare e.g. "suds are", not *"suds is"). Singular agreement is hardly a defining quality of mass nouns, however, especially when examined cross-linguistically (les mathematiques in French, las sopas in Spanish, מים in Hebrew, and so on). —RuakhTALK 20:05, 7 December 2006 (UTC)

You're right about "cattle" not being a collective noun. I realized that later. Sorry, that mistake only muddied the water. What I was struggling with mentally is that it does not "feel" mentally like any other English mass noun. "Cattle" seems to have both a plural count sense (which, not ending in -s, is irregular in its inflection) and a mass sense (which is not inflected differently from the plural count sense, but functions syntactically as a mass noun, although differently from other English mass nouns, as you point out, in that it takes a plural verb). And which sense any one speaker is "feeling" in their head can't always be discerned. I believe that to adequately classify "cattle", we would need to lay bare the underlying mental mechanism that grows mass-noun senses from count-noun roots—a mechanism of "etic discreteness emically-recognized-but-ignored because valued as irrelevant". Anyway, I have decided to butt out of the explication of "cattle" for now because I think that without the aforementioned investigation (which would be either original research or existing research that I'm too ignorant of to broach), not enough can be said about it. Thanks for sparking further thought. Lumbercutter 03:24, 8 December 2006 (UTC)
AFAIK the only syntactic difference between mass nouns and plural count nouns is that the former cause singular verb agreement and the latter cause plural verb agreement. "Cattle" would seem to be simply an obligatory plural. — Gwalla | Talk 05:27, 10 December 2006 (UTC)
Hmm. I thought mass noun had to do with countability (cattle can't be counted, as e.g. *"three cattle", at least for me), which is also what the OED says ("Grammar, a noun denoting something, such as a substance or a quality, which cannot be counted; esp. (in the English language) a noun which lacks a plural in ordinary usage and is not used with the indefinite article (opposed to count noun)"); but a recent Language Log post ( suggests otherwise; in which case this article needs to be heavily rewritten. —RuakhTALK 18:16, 10 December 2006 (UTC)
D'oh! You're totally right about that. — Gwalla | Talk 06:21, 12 December 2006 (UTC)
I don't agree that cattle can't be counted, and it seems to me that it is not a mass noun, but simply a plurale tantum (a plural with no singular, like "trousers"). In my dialect (southern English RP) I can easily say "three cattle". Similarly, "cattle" does not follow the mass noun question form: I can say "how many cattle do you have?", but I certainly can't say: "how much cattle do you have?". This makes it clear to me that (in my dialect at least) it is not a mass noun. Are there dialects of English where the latter question form is the correct one?
Even if some dialects do treat "cattle" as a mass noun, it is not one in RP, and so it cannot be correct to make a general statement that it is one.
The article gives both "cutlery" and "cattle" as examples of unquantised nouns. However, I think this only applies to cutlery: I can't pick up "four cutlery", but I can load four cattle into my trailer. Again, it is only "one cattle" which gives the problem. Richard New Forest (talk) 19:14, 22 October 2008 (UTC)
Properly speaking, no, you can't. Cattle is a developed sense of what the law now calls "chattel" (i.e., "personal property") and you can't load "three personal properties" into a trailer. Given how it's now generally a synonym for "cows", people can (and do) treat it as a countable noun; that modified use has historically been less common than "head of cattle" and remains so generally and in American English. In British English, countable cattle is rising but "head" and the uncountable use remains common and etymologically correct. — LlywelynII 15:22, 26 January 2014 (UTC)

Expert needed[edit]

1. The discussion here is all over the place. I would submit that two or three people with some expertise in this field be designated to (re-)organise the topic.

2. Furthermore, those who suggest merging 'mass noun' with 'count noun' are essentially correct. (And by the way, inter-language comparisons are interesting but typically lack much depth).

3. (a) The topic needs to be structured at least in terms of syntactic and semantic contrasts; and (b) merits attention chiefly from qualified linguists and semantically oriented philosophers.

4. I could suggest some potential candidates in both fields, but this may be the first step before proceeding any further - to agree on a few expert contributors.

Henry Laycock

Henry laycock 15:54, 18 April 2007 (UTC)

Dear Henry Laycock, I completely agree with you that this page needs tidying up, and that it needs a clearer separation of syntactic and semantic issues. In fact, at various points, I've been trying to provide exactly this, but I think whatever fruits there may have been of my efforts are lost by now, and I think that's partly due to my failure to provide refereces etc. In my experience, providing accurate information with proper refereces etc. works well in wikipedia, but for some reason, this page seems to be harder to maintain. I suggest that if you have any additions to make, provide references for every point, because that has proven to me to work as a buffer against later removal in other cases. Neither 00:39, 28 May 2007 (UTC)

Additional example of English mass nouns[edit]

Since the list of examples could be an aid to non-native English speakers and writers, I would like to suggest adding more examples. The first would be "education". Europeans often make the mistake of writing or saying "educations" when they mean "training sessions" or "courses". Thanks, BrianSheedy 13:57, 3 May 2007 (UTC)

Less vs. fewer[edit]

Examples of "less" used with count nouns can be found pretty much as far back as written English goes; including in Shakespeare, Eliot, and Dickens. The article makes it seem as if this is a very recent development in American English that is used by only a few ignorant people. —The preceding unsigned comment was added by (talkcontribs) 23:31, 3 July 2007 (UTC).

I am a linguistics Ph.D. student (American), and I agree with this criticism. In my observation, the "less" vs. "fewer" distinction is one you will find in grammar textbooks, and hardly anywhere else. (I can only speak for this side of the Atlantic.) I've edited the article to highlight the formal nature of the analysis. –Uïfareth Cúthalion (talk) 15:48, 9 August 2007 (UTC)

Merging articles[edit]

It seems to me all these articles (mass noun, count noun, collective noun, concrete noun, abstract noun, proper noun, common noun) should either be merged together into the noun article, or left separate. I don't much care which. Nor will I lose sleep if I'm overruled. –Uïfareth Cúthalion (talk) 15:39, 9 August 2007 (UTC)


Maybe it's just me, but I find it funny when count and non-count nouns are deliberately mis-classified. For example,

Someone: Can I have some rice please?
Me: Sure, how many?
Them: Er... a thousand?

I'd be delighted if there are examples of this in popular comedy, and if so, a small section in the article is deserved. As another example, I'm just using my imaginations. RatnimSnave 15:45, 8 November 2007 (UTC)

Do they repeat the 'joke' to you when you ask for some water? There's nothing wrong or mis- about using "any" or "some" with uncountable nouns. — LlywelynII 15:27, 26 January 2014 (UTC)


To my knowledge, you can only confound a thinking entity. "Confounded" is a state that people get in when something confuses them. You don't confound a pair of concepts. You can become confounded over the difference between a pair of concepts. Can we change "Confounding of" to "Confusion between"? Robert Rapplean (talk) 17:59, 4 September 2008 (UTC)

From AHD4:
"1. To cause to become confused or perplexed."
"2. To fail to distinguish; mix up: confound fiction and fact."
See also Confounding, as in the set-phrase term confounding variable (a variable whose effects are confounded with those of other variables). — ¾-10 00:15, 5 September 2008 (UTC)


Why is it "mass noun" and not "uncountable noun"? The latter is more common as shown by a google search: "mass nouns" - 32,300; "uncountable nouns" - 74,800. The latter is also the term used in most TEFL books. Malick78 (talk) 16:15, 16 December 2008 (UTC)

That was very surprising to me, too, but vanilla Google numbers are generally meaningless unless they vary by many orders of magnitude. They simply don't bother using the computing power to give you a real number. Using the much more reliable Ngram corpus, though, unexpectedly shows "mass" is actually more common.
Given that Oxford and many other ESL sources do use uncountable, though, we might base a move on the reliability of the sources. The American corpus seems to show the momentum going towards "uncountable". I'd be in favor since it's a better fit with "countable" and my usage. — LlywelynII 15:37, 26 January 2014 (UTC)
I completely agree. The title should be "uncountable noun." I am an English teacher and I never heard it called a mass noun before. My own google test shows uncountable noun is much more popular as well:
Uncountable noun
Mass noun
The former has 70% more results than the latter. I vote we change the title. (talk) 11:15, 12 October 2016 (UTC)

Article merge with count noun[edit]

I think that mass and count noun articles should be together; I'm suggesting that they be put in with the quantization article. But that also covers telicity, so perhaps all three should be in the quantization article? Alternatively, all the noun articles (common, proper, abstract, etc.) could be merged in with the noun article, with a link to quantization. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 21:02, 27 October 2010 (UTC)

(See similar suggestion above under #Merging articles above, which included other articles too).
I agree with merging these two – each of them spends a lot of time talking about the other. Quantisation is closely related and has so little material that it could also be included. Telicity has a separate article, and is different enough to remain so. What would we call the merged article? Richard New Forest (talk) 22:04, 27 October 2010 (UTC)
One possibility for the article name would be "Count nouns and mass nouns". Please also see discussions of the merging idea at Talk:Count noun. —BarrelProof (talk) 18:38, 10 January 2013 (UTC)
I would disagree with any merge with an arbitrary linguistic term. This should remain at the common English name, with or without a merge to countable. A merged article should be at countable and uncountable nouns, though. Just as common, better momentum, and semantically much better paired. — LlywelynII 15:45, 26 January 2014 (UTC)

Indefinite article and mass noun[edit]

The common statement that mass nouns can't be used with an indefinite article seems to be a myth, or at a minimum it requires additional explanation. Consider:

He has a little knowledge. He provided a little information. Open a window and let in a little air.

Both of these take on a different meaning without the "a." —Preceding unsigned comment added by Freond (talkcontribs) 19:39, 8 November 2010 (UTC)

Hi. I think your "a" forms part of the qualifier "a little", and does not belong to the mass noun itself. You can say "a little information", but not "an information". Isn't it just like measures? You can say "a ton of sand" but not "a sand". Richard New Forest (talk) 21:30, 8 November 2010 (UTC)
You certainly can say both "an information" and "a sand". We simply usually opt not to, in favor of using other words for those concepts. (There remain standard legal uses, though, where information is a countable procedure or act.)
You're right that the countable object in Freond's post, however, was "bit" and not "knowledge", "information", or "air" in themselves. — LlywelynII 15:52, 26 January 2014 (UTC)


What does anyone make of the word clothes? It's conjugated in the plural ["Her clothes are all torn."], is modified like a count noun ["I have too many clothes"], but obviously can't be counted, at least not in normal usage. Sometimes it is modified like a mass noun ["We received a huge amount of clothes as donations."] Weird, eh? You think its conjugation has changed since it has an S to look like other plurals, or do you think it used to be a regular count noun that was relexified without being reassigned conjugative numerical value (because of the S)? I lean toward the latter. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 07:24, 14 January 2011 (UTC)

Very good point. You are right that the use of "many" suggests it is thought of as a count noun, but it doesn't seem to be possible to give it a number: you can't say "I have nine clothes", and even "how many clothes?" seems wrong. The treatment as a plural suggests that it is a plurale tantum (like "cattle"). These can sometimes be counted (like cattle), but are often paired, like trousers and binoculars ("five pairs of trousers", but not "five trousers". I can't think of a similar example to "clothes". Richard New Forest (talk) 14:53, 14 January 2011 (UTC)
It's an uncountable t.p. that developed from "cloth". We usually form the plural by using another countable ("garment", "outfit", &c.) or uncountable ("item", "piece", "article", &c. "of clothing"). — LlywelynII 16:02, 26 January 2014 (UTC)

"Generic Nouns"?[edit]

I have been looking (too long) in Wikipedia for this topic, and can't find it (although it's easily findable in Google, with examples). It's called there a "Generic Noun". For example - "I play the piano" (not, "I play pianos"). Or, let's do the exercise, the "knee bender" (not "knees bender", even though everyone has two knees). Can someone tell me where to look for this grammar rule in Wikipedia? (I'm sure it must be called something else besides "Generic noun"). Thanks.Jimhoward72 (talk) 09:05, 18 September 2011 (UTC)

Reference to "slang" English word "veg" as a mass noun[edit]

"Veg" is commonly used in the expressions "meat and veg" to mean meat and vegetables, but also in the great departed British tradition of transport cafes (greasy dives frequented by lorry drivers), the menu would likely offer "meat and two veg" alongside the sausage rolls and bacon butties. Clearly a count noun here, unmodified by a unit of measure. "Veg" might be argued as a collective noun in some uses, but calling it a mass noun is dubious. I welcome your opinions.

21:01, 11 April 2013 (UTC) — Preceding unsigned comment added by Eigentensor (talkcontribs)

I agree. Martin Hogbin (talk) 18:27, 26 February 2014 (UTC)
In English we tend to use mass nouns for food. We also tend to use the plural of a count noun as a mass noun. Thus in the expression "eat your vegetables", "vegetables" is a mass noun. "Veg" is short for "vegetables" and can be a count or mass noun by context.  Randall Bart   Talk  16:57, 26 June 2014 (UTC)
"Vegetables" is not an uncountable noun: you can't say *"Vegetables is good." Curly Turkey ¡gobble! 22:48, 16 February 2015 (UTC)

Why are they equated with uncountable nouns?[edit]

Why "uncountable nouns" is mentioned as a synonym to "mass nouns"? Some abstract nouns are not mass nouns and yet are uncountable too. Hence, mass nouns are a subset of uncountable. --CopperKettle 14:29, 14 July 2013 (UTC)

As I understand the terms, a "mass noun" and an "uncountable noun" are just synonyms to what I call a "non-count" noun. Can you give an example of a noun you consider to be uncountable but not a mass noun, and explain why you consider it so?--AndreRD (talk) 09:06, 21 January 2014 (UTC)
He has a distinction in his head that uncountable nouns referring (e.g.) to substances—"iron", "water", "plastic"—are "mass nouns" while those referring (e.g.) to concepts—"information", "emotion", "faith"—aren't.
Really, though, it's just a poor term of art and they are synonyms. The momentum seems to be towards "uncountable nouns" eventually replacing "mass nouns", but it hasn't happened yet. — LlywelynII 16:10, 26 January 2014 (UTC)

Grammatical number of non-count nouns[edit]

The page is missing important information about the grammatical number of non-count nouns. Nowhere does it clearly state whether non-count nouns are syntactically singular or plural, i.e. whether they agree with "is" or "are".

As far as I understand, there are two types of non-count nouns, those which take the singular, and those which take the plural. The ones that are discussed on this page are all singular non-count nouns, "The water is blue", "The grass is green", etc. The other type of non-count noun is the "Plurale tantum", such as "The clothes are blue" or "The scissors are green". --AndreRD (talk) 08:59, 21 January 2014 (UTC)

Much/many distinction[edit]

This sentence appears in the article: "However, both mass and count nouns can be quantified in relative terms without unit specification (e.g., "much water," "so many chairs")." While purporting to show similarity, this actually points up a distinction. "Much" is a singular word used with mass nouns, while "many" is a plural word used with count nouns. English doesn't have plural and singular for adjectives, except this special case.  Randall Bart   Talk  16:49, 26 June 2014 (UTC)

  • Hairsplit: "much" doesn't imply "singular". But yes, you're right. Curly Turkey ¡gobble! 22:47, 16 February 2015 (UTC)

Chocolate Milk[edit]

Milk is a mass noun. You can't have two milks, it's like water, you can't have more than one water. Well you can, but in containers. But what about chocolate milk? I can buy two chocolate milks can I not? Sure you could say two bottles of chocolate milk, but what if you aren't certain if it comes in bottle or in a paper box? And you don't want there to be confusion. So do you side step the problem and ask for "chocolate milk.. two of them"? Or do you say it improperly and say two chocolate milks? :) — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 16:08, 16 February 2015 (UTC)

There's a way out of the apparent problem. Mass nouns are not "nouns that can never take plural inflections"; rather, they are nouns that take plural inflections only under certain conditions. Which is to say, the exact meaning of "improper" is at issue—does it mean "incorrect" as in solecistic, or does it only mean inappropriate to a register? Pluralizing a mass noun is solecistic only when it is unidiomatic (as in I had gravels in my shoe rather than gravel or pieces of gravel)—it is not always solecistic. One can speak of calming the waters, buying two sodas, or collecting fine wines, and the only question about such usage is not whether it is correct or incorrect but rather whether there is a recasted version that is preferable for formal registers. Thus, in the chocolate milk example, it is idiomatic to say "two chocoloate milks, please", and not solecistic, but if you are striving to avoid informal (casual) register, then you could recast it as "two cartons of chocolate milk, please". In speech, self-editing to that extent can be impractical, and it usually isn't worth the trouble. (Sure it's wise to think before you speak, because tact is valuable in social interactions, but there's a practical limit to tongue-tying oneself merely to please people whose grammar prescriptions are hypercorrective anyway. One does one's best on the fly.) In writing, in contrast with speech—at least in formal writing, thus, in a work email, even if not in texting about what's for dinner—there is a legitimate expectation that after you have banged out your first draft, you will go back over it and refine it. Thus, a certain valid expectation of self-editing. Some people think "two milks" sounds too colloquial for formal writing. (A deep analysis of why they think that, and whether it's justified, is beyond-scope here; but it's enough to know that it's tactful to avoid annoying them.) Thus, you could talk about milks in the cafeteria but turn to "cartons of milk" for an essay, book, or blog, simply because some readers won't like too much casualism (informality, colloquial register) in that context. Usage is context-sensitive, as is the amount of time one chooses to spend on self-editing. Cheers, Quercus solaris (talk) 20:13, 16 February 2015 (UTC)
I came back here because I realized I ignored part of the question: "what if you aren't certain if it comes in a bottle or in a paper box?" That's a good point—how do you handle such a thing in formal writing, given that "two milks" is too colloquial to avoid a reader's censure? This involves moving to a next-higher abstraction layer, which is something that often needs to be done in engineering, management, programming and software development, and technical writing. Typically it will be solved by using a broader word, such as "container" or "unit"; thus, "two containers of milk" or "two units of milk", because "two bottles, cartons, or pouches of milk" sounds awkward. It's often a good solution—although the only problem that one has to be on guard for is avoiding jargony tone, or, to speak more precisely at the risk of being jargony, to keep any jargony tone as low as reasonably practical. It's a balancing act that's context-sensitive. Jargon is valid in technical contexts (because it affords economy and precision of usage) as long as it is being used appropriately and not overused (i.e., needless excess—if a bottle is in front of us, maybe I shouldn't call it a "unit", despite that it is one). But the validity of jargon's use in technical writing depends on how targeted you can assume your audience is. And if you talk about units at the cafeteria table, people will snicker. Quercus solaris (talk) 21:08, 16 February 2015 (UTC)
  • You can say the exact same thing with "milk" as with "chocolate milk". When it's countable ("two milks", "three chocolate milks") it implies there are units of milk—the containers—and is a shorthand for "two containers of milk". "Milk" and "chocolate milk" themselves are still uncountable by default—they're fluids that can't normally be counted in units, so we normally say "some [chocolate] milk", or "[chocolate] milk is good" (never *"[chocolate] milks are good"). To drive the point home, even when you ask for "two chocolate milks", after drinking it you would never say *"Mmm! Chocolate milks are good!", but "Mmm! Chocolate milk is good" (implying the (uncountable) milk itself, and not the (countable) portioning). Curly Turkey ¡gobble! 22:56, 16 February 2015 (UTC)

Nouns with both senses[edit]

I have removed meat, grass, paper, art, and sugar from the examples list. I understand that they have both countable and uncountable senses. I feel that, if the examples list is to include the words only, without context, it should be limited to words without a countable sense. Otherwise the examples muddle and confuse more than they inform and elucidate. If there were a usage example for each example word, such as "Please pass the sugar" or "Don't walk on the grass", then it would make more sense to include such dual-sense examples. Or, you could simply have a separate list of dual-sense examples. ―Mandruss  17:20, 16 March 2015 (UTC)

And I have now created a separate list with those five items. More may need to be moved, I'll leave that to others. ―Mandruss  20:14, 16 March 2015 (UTC)

I agree that Mandruss's change was an improvement. Perhaps the next step (part of the "I'll leave that to others") would be to further refine the list so that we start out with a list of the most unambiguous examples (and thus the strongest ones, pedagogically, for this purpose)—ones for which it's almost impossible to have a nonsolecistic count form. Thus advice, blood, evidence, garbage would remain in the opening list, whereas deodorant and food would move to the second list (their count forms are not as unusual). In fact, I will go do that right now (WP:BOLD). Quercus solaris (talk) 22:14, 16 March 2015 (UTC)
Support that. As a general comment, I support "less is more" here. It's not intended to be a comprehensive list of examples, or anything close. It should be a list sufficiently long to clearly illustrate what a mass noun is. I think 10-15 strong examples in each list would be about right, and I count 21 in the current first list and 17 in the second. I leave the rest to people more educated than I, and Quercus solaris seems to be one of those people (I haven't a clue what "nonsolecistic" is, and it's enough of a challenge to spell it). ―Mandruss  02:54, 17 March 2015 (UTC)
As additional food (uncountable sense) for thought (also uncountable sense), I considered showing the dual-sense examples as fish(es), sugar(s), etc. ―Mandruss  02:57, 17 March 2015 (UTC)

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