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Nouns for the masses

Noun words are members of an extensive family, but their variety can be confusing.

A while back, I spoke with a friend who came to English later in life, her first language being Mandarin. We were collaborating on a writing project, and she wondered why it was ‘two pieces of fruit’ and not ‘two fruits’. After all, we say ‘two apples’, so why isn’t it the same for fruit? Or, for that matter, a whole range of other nouns like furniture, cutlery and traffic?

It turns out her question relates to whether a noun is countable or not – a distinction that has grammatical significance in the English language.

Non-countable nouns (or mass nouns) include:
• particulates, liquids and gases (e.g. dust, sand, blood, milk, coffee, tea, smoke, air)
• food (e.g. butter, cheese, bread, rice)
• qualities (e.g. integrity, corruption, courage)
• categories of items (e.g. furniture, cutlery, clothing, fish, meat)
• materials (e.g. wood, steel, glass, concrete)
• abstract concepts (e.g. justice, equality, evidence, information).

While non-countable nouns are generally expressed in the singular form, in actual fact, they are neither singular nor plural entities. To ‘quantify’ these nouns, English grammar requires a measure and addition of the word ‘of’ before the noun, for example:
• layers of cream
• two litres of milk
• a piece of evidence.

Unlike a countable noun, which refers to a ‘thing’ having discrete units (e.g. two balls, three bells), a non-countable noun describes ‘stuff’ whose unit of quantity is not individuated. For example, you can count the number of cups on a table, but water – whether in a cup, a tub or a pool – remains water. Further, the sum of different parts of water remains water. That is why we do not (and cannot) enumerate water, we can only say there is ‘little’ or ‘less’ water or ‘much’ water – but not ‘many’ water – and only specify its amount by reference to a measure or container that holds it (e.g. a litre of water, a bucket of water).

The grammatical distinction between countable and non-countable is not merely curious or whimsical. It pervades all our languages to varying extents, a puzzle long pondered by linguists, philosophers and cognitive psychologists alike. Something to keep in mind the next time you’re trying to decide whether to use ‘less’ or ‘fewer’.

photo credit: erix! three apples via photopin (license)

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