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Mass effect

One of the things I love about English is the quirks of its structure which native speakers aren't consciously aware of, but which bedevil learners. An example is the way it handles mass and count nouns. Maybe you got taught this sort of thing at school, but I never did: so here it is now, some actually useful grammar.

A count noun is the usual kind of noun, which has a singular and a plural form, like 'table': a table, two tables, lots of tables.

A mass noun doesn't have singular and plural form, because the thing it describes isn't quantized into discrete elements. So eg. 'cement': a little bit of cement, two kilograms of cement, lots of cement; but not: one cement, two cements, lots of cements. There is no such word as 'cements'.

Other mass nouns are usually substances, like cement (water, flour, sugar, metal…) or abstracts (cycling, traffic, heat, mathematics… you can't have two kilograms of these, of course, but they're still mass nouns).

Some of them can actually be pluralized (eg. rain is generally a mass noun but one can also talk about 'the rains') but with a different meaning then attached: it doesn't detract from the general mass-noun behaviour. There's also awkward things like 'chicken': when talking about the meat it's a mass noun, but when talking about the animal (or about a set of food orders) it's a count noun.

Mass nouns are not peculiar to English, of course, they exist in lots of languages. But in English there's the curious phenomenon of what might be called faux-mass nouns: ie. count nouns which disguise themselves as mass nouns by appearing not to have different singular and plural forms. An example is 'sheep': you can have one sheep, two sheep, lots of sheep: but not a little bit of sheep, two kilograms of sheep. Awkwardest of all are those which fall into this category and also into the one above, like 'fish': you can have one fish, two fish, lots of fish, but also a little bit of fish, two kilograms of fish.

Any other strange behaviours of noun pluralization come to mind? And those of you who have grammatical understanding of other languages, I'd be interested to learn how it works with those.


( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
16th Dec, 2013 20:28 (UTC)
I'm not entirely convinced by "faux mass noun" as a label. It's true that "lots of sheep" doesn't tell you whether it's a count or a mass noun, but then "lots of X" suffers from the same ambiguity for all X unless you can identify X as singular or plural in isolation. Given more sentences with "sheep" in you'll eventually find one which can't be a mass noun, at which point there's no longer any confusion.

Fish is confusing, but from my perspective that's mostly because fish is both a count and a mass noun.
17th Dec, 2013 09:56 (UTC)
Mm, you're right of course. I was thinking that for a learner of English, the time during which sufficient 'sheep' examples can be accumulated to be confident of the usage may be appreciable.

It's well known that 'sheeps' and other such incorrect regularizations (eg. 'foots') are common errors in children developing native English use. I wonder if, among foreign English learners, the 'sheeps' confusion of mass and count noun is commoner than the 'foots' type of error.
17th Dec, 2013 11:21 (UTC)
I love that kind of kid-speak!

No idea about the foreigners question, since I've seen very few at the learning stage.
16th Dec, 2013 21:01 (UTC)
"There is no such word as 'cements'."

One can write sentences such as "Hydraulic cements (e.g., Portland cement) harden because of hydration, a chemical reaction between the anhydrous cement powder and water." Is there grammatically a difference between "We will need two tonnes of cement for this job" and "We will need two different cements for this job"? We can certainly replace "cements" with "types of cement" or "sugars" with types of "sugar", but perhaps not "types of rain" with "rains". The classification of a noun as a mass noun is capturing something about the nature of the noun, but there's still context to be taken into account.
17th Dec, 2013 09:50 (UTC)
'Rains' would be replaced with 'periods of rain' I guess. This (and 'cements' for 'kinds of cement') is a sort of synecdoche, it seems to me.

'Geometry' is an interesting example. Originally it was purely a mass noun, but once it was discovered that different geometries (ie. synecdochic for 'systems of geometry'?) were possible, the plural form became sufficiently familiar that now it makes more sense to think of it as commonly a count noun.
17th Dec, 2013 09:59 (UTC)
Is there some kind of coomon mechanism of thought through which nouns that start as mass nouns become generalised through the synedoche process to count nouns?

"Rains" is an interesting example. "The rains started early that year." There are certainly different types of rain (intermittent light drizzle v. heavy persistent downpour), butt would a meteorologist talk of "rains" in the context of "types of rains"? However, a planetologist might, I suppose, contrast water rain on Earth with hydrocarbon rain on Titan, thus opening up the use of "rains" in the synedoche sense.
17th Dec, 2013 10:11 (UTC)
It wouldn't surprise me if one could conceive of at least one arcane synecdochic context along these lines for every mass noun. Then I suppose it's just a question of how mainstream that usage gets to eventually become.
16th Dec, 2013 23:08 (UTC)
I remember onebyone once expressing the theory that anything which you could hunt could be used as a mass noun (deer, duck, elephant, etc). Most of these things behave like normal nouns in any other context (I feed ducks on the pond, but I went shooting duck at the weekend[*]). I suspect that's due to the way people who hunt (historically) phrased things, rather than any inherent capacity of the noun.

[*] I didn't do either of these things, by the way.
17th Dec, 2013 09:43 (UTC)
Mm, I think that's right. I've heard this formation referred to as the 'snob plural', because people who use it do so to indicate that they have a rather more up-market relationship with these huntable items than ordinary people do.

Perhaps revealingly, the same sort of plural was often used for native peoples of colonized lands, eg. 'a band of Cheyenne' rather than 'a band of Cheyennes'.
17th Dec, 2013 07:55 (UTC)
Hang on, isn't it 'I own three fishes'?

I was in a school year where the then-government decided to switch maths and literacy years around in primary, then hanged their mind and switched it bak the year after. As a result, we got two years of maths, but never actually learned all the grammar definitions and construction rules. By the time we went to senior school the teachers just assumed we knew and used words I'd never heard of. I only figured out what a noun or an adjective was once we started learning French. Before that, I just spoke and wrote English the way I'd been reading it, with no knowledge of rules apart from things I'd unconsciously grasped; thankfully I always read a lot of books.
17th Dec, 2013 09:38 (UTC)
I did get taught some grammar at school, but most of it I've subsequently learned was wrong, so you might have had a lucky escape.

I actually think that it's better to learn by mimicking usage, rather than by learning a bunch of rules which (in English at least) always turn out to have reams of exceptions and exceptions to the exceptions.
30th Dec, 2013 11:45 (UTC)
Almost all English (countable) nouns can be legitimately pluralised by adding an s (or es), and I think that "fish" falls into that category, as does "cannon" - much to the annoyance of a friend of mine who insisted that I was wrong about this on one occasion. Some nouns (and "sheep" is a notable example) simply jar if you add an s to them.

I'm not the greatest champion of common usage dictating correctness, but in this case I tend to lean that way.
31st Dec, 2013 10:55 (UTC)
The long-term usage graph for 'three cannons' is interesting: https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=three+cannon%2Cthree+cannons&year_start=1880&year_end=2008&corpus=6&smoothing=3&share=&search_plus_one=form&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cthree%20cannon%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cthree%20cannons%3B%2Cc0

I'm sure you're right that almost all such nouns do to some extent take what might perhaps be called 'the toddler's plural'. I wonder if anyone's done an analysis of which do so more or less commonly, and speculated as to whether there's a meaningful pattern.
31st Dec, 2013 11:10 (UTC)
Those are fascinating graphs... as to whether anyone's analysed that aspect of grammar in detail... who knows? If not, perhaps one day I will do a post-grad myself and take it on (but don't hold your breath)!

For what it's worth, the Chambers dictionary lists both fish and fishes, and cannon and cannons, as standard plural forms, and does not prefer one above the other in either case. Where did you get the term "toddler's plural" by the way? Did you coin it yourself?
31st Dec, 2013 11:26 (UTC)
I did: it seemed apt given the well-known research on 'wug[s]' :-)
17th Dec, 2013 08:47 (UTC)
A lot of people get confused by the use of 'less' and 'fewer', but it fits right in with what you're writing about.

I have less cement than you, but fewer tables.

I have fewer sheep also.

Fish can be used both ways, and the context is very telling.

If I have a fishing boat with a full hold, you have less fish than I do, but if we keep pet fish, then you have fewer fish.

Clearly the distinction depends partly on whether it would be physically possible to count them.
17th Dec, 2013 09:36 (UTC)
Mm, exactly.

It seems to me that 'less' is increasingly replacing 'fewer' in that usage: although plenty of people object to this, it seems likely that 'fewer' will fall into disuse and 'less' will end up covering both.
30th Dec, 2013 11:51 (UTC)
I wouldn't be too bold about that prediction. I don't know whether loose vs strict usage is growing or shrinking. According to David Crystal, people were bitching about that, along with disinterested vs uninterested back in Samuel Johnson's day. There are enough linguistic pedants out there to keep the home fires burning for "fewer" for some time yet.

All of which has reminded me of this XKCD strip. I particularly like the line about the Ghost of Subjunctive Past!
31st Dec, 2013 10:52 (UTC)
heh! indeed.

I guess time will tell on less/fewer. The 'recency illusion' and related phenomena suggest that you're right about it being a sluggish process at best!
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