[eDebate] Mass nouns and resolutions.

scottelliott at grandecom.net scottelliott
Wed Jun 7 16:45:45 CDT 2006

No argument. Just puttting this out there in the context of considering the
nouns embodied in the various resolutions. For example, the term "decisions"
can be both a mass noun or a count noun depending on the context. Same for the
term "judgments" or "precedents":

Mass noun
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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 mass nouns have singular but no plural forms. Count nouns, on
the other hand, have plural forms, and can be modified by numerals and
quantifiers like "one", "two", "every", "most", etc.

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.

Sometimes, however, a physical or abstract entity has a part-whole structure
which makes it difficult to refer to with a count noun. Most things that can be
referred to with a count noun can also be referred to with a mass noun, given
the right context. Example:

"There is apple on the floor."
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.

Some illustrative examples of English mass nouns:

Some nouns can have both mass noun and count noun forms and meanings. 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".

"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 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.

A mass noun can be preceded by a measure word, as in "ten pieces of furniture"
or "a gallon of water".

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. 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. Compare with "rice": not only is there no plural "rices", but
"three rice", "a rice", and "several rice" all appear wrong to native English
speakers. The noun "fish" further confuses the issue, as the plural of the
animal "fish" can be "fishes" or "fish", while "fish" as a meat is a mass noun
(see "salmon"/"shark" distinction below).

Some speakers of English use a plural form of non-count nouns when there are
mixed types. For example, if one sees a school of fish, it is non-count because
all of the fish in a school are identical. However, when one sees a variety of
fishes in a net, they are of different species, and are called "fishes".
According to this rule, two salmon are two fish, whereas one salmon and one
shark together are two fishes.

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. 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.

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". Some of these countable forms have slightly different meanings
than their mass forms.

"Aquafina and Ozarka are two different brands of water." (mass)
"Aquafina and Ozarka are two different waters." (count)
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

"There are sands in the hourglass." (count)
"There is sand in the hourglass." (mass)
"There is a sand in the hourglass." (count)
Some kinds of nouns have subtle rules. For example, count forms are used for
fish not intended for food, while mass nouns are used for fish that one would

"The net is full of salmon." (mass)
"The net is full of sharks." (count ? used if the speaker is not a shark eater)
"The net is full of shark." (mass ? used if the speaker is a shark eater)
In some languages, such as Japanese, all nouns are effectively mass nouns and
require a measure word to use.

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