In linguistics, a mass noun, uncountable noun, or non-count noun is a noun with the syntactic property that any quantity of it is treated as an undifferentiated unit, rather than as something with discrete subsets. Non-count nouns are distinguished from count nouns.
Given that different languages have different grammatical features, the actual test for which nouns are mass nouns may vary between languages. In English, mass nouns are characterized by the fact that they cannot be directly modified by a numeral without specifying a unit of measurement, and that they cannot combine with an indefinite article (a or an). Thus, the mass noun "water" is quantified as "20 litres of water" while the count noun "chair" is quantified as "20 chairs". However, both mass and count nouns can be quantified in relative terms without unit specification (e.g., "so much water," "so many chairs").
Some mass nouns can be used in English in the plural to mean "more than one instance (or example) of a certain sort of entity"—for example, "Many cleaning agents today are technically not soaps, but detergents." In such cases they no longer play the role of mass nouns, but (syntactically) they are treated as count nouns.
Some nouns can be used indifferently as mass or count nouns, e.g., three cabbages or three heads of cabbage; three ropes or three lengths of rope. Some have different senses as mass and count nouns: paper is a mass noun as a material (three reams of paper, two sheets of paper), but a count noun as a unit of writing ("the students passed in their papers").
Relating grammatical number to physical discreteness
In English (and in many other languages), there is a tendency for nouns referring to liquids (water, juice), powders (sugar, sand), or substances (metal, wood) to be used in mass syntax, and for nouns referring to objects or people to be count nouns. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, however; mass nouns such as furniture and cutlery, which represent more easily quantified objects, show that the mass/count distinction should be thought of as a property of the terms themselves, rather than as a property of their referents. For example, the same set of chairs can be referred to as "seven chairs" and as "furniture"; although both chair and furniture are referring to the same thing, the former is a count noun and the latter a mass noun. The Middle English mass noun pease has become the count noun pea by morphological reanalysis.
For another illustration of the principle that the count/non-count distinction lies not in an object but rather in the expression that refers to it, 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"].
In languages that have a partitive case, the distinction is explicit and mandatory. For example, in Finnish, join vettä, "I drank (some) water", the word vesi, "water", is in the partitive case. The related sentence join veden, "I drank (the) water", using the accusative case instead, assumes that there was a specific countable portion of water that was completely drunk.
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.
Cumulativity and mass nouns
- If X can be described as P and Y can be described as P, as well, then the sum of X and Y can also be described as P.
In more formal terms (Krifka 1998):
which may be read as: X is cumulative if there exists at least one pair x,y, where x and y are distinct, and both have the property X, and if for all possible pairs x and y fitting that description, X is a property of the sum of x and y.
Consider, for example cutlery: If one collection of cutlery is combined with another, we still have "cutlery." Similarly, if water is added to water, we still have "water." But if a chair is added to another, we don't have "a chair," but rather two chairs. Thus the nouns "cutlery" and "water" have cumulative reference, while the expression "a chair" does not. The expression "chairs", however, does, suggesting that the generalization is not actually specific to the mass-count distinction. As many have noted, it is possible to provide an alternative analysis, by which mass nouns and plural count nouns are assigned a similar semantics, as distinct from that of singular count nouns.
An expression P has quantized reference if and only if, for any X:
- If X can be described as P, then no proper part of X can be described as P.
This can be seen to hold in the case of the noun house: no proper part of a house, for example the bathroom, or the entrance door, is itself a house. Similarly, no proper part of a man, say his index finger, or his knee, can be described as a man. Hence, house and man have quantized reference. However, collections of cutlery do have proper parts that can themselves be described as cutlery. Hence cutlery does not have quantized reference. Notice again that this is probably not a fact about mass-count syntax, but about prototypical examples, since many singular count nouns have referents whose proper parts can be described by the same term. Examples include divisible count nouns like "rope", "string", "stone", "tile", etc.
Some expressions are neither quantized nor cumulative. Examples of this include collective nouns like committee. A committee may well contain a proper part which is itself a committee. Hence this expression isn't quantized. It isn't cumulative, either: the sum of two separate committees isn't necessarily a committee. In terms of the mass/count distinction, committee behaves like a count noun. By some accounts, these examples are taken to indicate that the best characterization of mass nouns is that they are cumulative nouns. On such accounts, count nouns should then be characterized as non-cumulative nouns: this characterization correctly groups committee together with the count nouns. If, instead, we had chosen to characterize count nouns as quantized nouns, and mass nouns as non-quantized ones, then we would (incorrectly) be led to expect committee to be a mass noun. However, as noted above, such a characterization fails to explain many central phenomena of the mass-count distinction.
Multiple senses for one noun
Many English nouns can be used in either mass or count syntax, and in these cases, they take on cumulative reference when used as mass nouns. For example, one may say that "there's apple in this sauce," and then apple has cumulative reference, and, hence, is used as a mass noun. The names of animals, such as "chicken", "fox" or "lamb" are count when referring to the animals themselves, but are mass when referring to their meat, fur, or other substances produced by them. (e.g., "I'm cooking chicken tonight" or "This coat is made of fox.") Conversely, "fire" is frequently used as a mass noun, but "a fire" refers to a discrete entity. Substance terms like "water" which are frequently used as mass nouns, can be used as count nouns to denote arbitrary units of a substance ("Two waters please") or of several types/varieties ("waters of the world"). One may say that mass nouns that are used as count nouns are "countified" and that count ones that are used as mass nouns are "massified". However, this may confuse syntax and semantics, by presupposing that words which denote substances are mass nouns by default. According to many accounts, nouns do not have a lexical specification for mass-count status, and instead are specified as such only when used in a sentence. Nouns differ in the extent to which they can be used flexibly, depending largely on their meanings and the context of use. For example, the count noun "house" is difficult to use as mass (though clearly possible), and the mass noun "cutlery" is most frequently used as mass, despite the fact that it denotes objects, and has count equivalents in other languages:
- Bad: *There is house on the road. (Bad even if the situation of war is considered)
- Bad: *There is a cutlery on the table. (Bad even if just one fork is on the table)
- Good: You get a lot of house for your money since the recession.
- Good: Spanish cutlery is my favorite. (type / kind reading)
Some quantifiers are specific to mass nouns (e.g., an amount of) or count nouns (e.g., a number of, every). Others can be used with both types (e.g., a lot of, some).
Words fewer and less
Where much and little qualify mass nouns, many and few have an analogous function for count nouns:
- How much damage? —Very little.
- How many mistakes? —Very few.
Whereas more and most are the comparative and superlative of both much and many, few and little have differing comparative and superlative (fewer, fewest and less, least). However, suppletive use of less and least with count nouns is common in many contexts, some of which attract criticism as nonstandard or low-prestige. This criticism dates back to at least 1770; the usage dates back to Old English. In 2008, Tesco changed supermarket checkout signs reading "Ten items or less" after complaints that it was bad grammar; it switched to "Up to ten items" rather than "Ten items or fewer" at the suggestion of the Plain English Campaign.
Conflation of collective noun and mass noun
There is often confusion about the two different concepts of collective noun and mass noun. Generally, collective nouns are not mass 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 conflate 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.
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