Every learner of a foreign language experiences a certain euphoria at the beginning, based (we believe) mainly on fantasies about what you'll be able to do when the studied tongue is mastered. After a short time, this feeling is often crushed — or at least, dealt a serious blow — by a collision with a wall. The wall, of different proportions in different languages, is encountered at different stages by different learners. The common theme to all these linguistic walls is the sudden realization that fluency in the new language you formerly imagined yourself babbling in will require you to internalize some obscure distinction among lexical items that your first language does not even take note of and that, on the face of it, seems arbitrary, whimsical, counterintuitive, and completely unnecessary.

For some English learners, one such wall is the distinction between count nouns and mass nouns. We've been thinking about that distinction lately, after reading in New Scientist a few months ago about the findings of a linguist at the University of Austria who had studied English conversations between nonnative speakers. She noted that these speakers don't distinguish between mass nouns (like information and furniture) and count nouns (like ball and onion). The writer of the article, Michael Erard, goes on to speculate that

some day it may be reasonable to talk about "informations" and "furnitures."

Mr. Erard, clearly a man who knows how to get mileage out of an idea, also has a short piece in last month's Wired, where he notes that the English of the future, as a result of global influences from other languages, may become a language in which

our practice of not turning certain nouns into plurals will be ignored. Expect to be asked: "How many informations does your flash drive hold?"

Is it worthwhile for English to maintain a system of distinctions that its many learners find burdensome and unnecessary? We think so, and we think that there will be a place in the foreseeable future for mass and count nouns to coexist because they allow speakers and writers to make useful and important distinctions. Consider, for example, a line from an incriminating email that recently came to light from a Wall Street type who was found to have been behaving badly. He wrote:

I am pushing every angle here to move product.

This, it turns out, was a sort of code for saying that he was leaving no stone unturned in an attempt to offload worthless securities. If, on the other hand, he'd written

I am pushing every angle here to move products.

the meaning would have been entirely different, and perhaps less self-incriminating: for the suggestion might have been that he was simply trying to increase sales of his firm's securities offerings.

To take a different example from an entirely different context, consider the Joni Mitchell lyric:

I bring him apples and cheeses
He brings me songs to play

Here she articulates volumes, we think, by the addition of a single 's' to cheese; "apples and cheeses" opens an imaginative vista that the quotidian "apples and cheese" does not even hint at. Later in this song, ("He Comes for Conversation," from the Ladies of the Canyon album) she cleverly pluralizes another mass noun to good effect in the line

She speaks in sorry sentences, miraculous repentances

From a native-speaker perspective, the distinction between mass and count nouns is not problematic; it is a source of the richness of expression in the language, so it seems unlikely that native speakers would be inclined to abandon it. The question at present, however, seems to be to what extent native speakers are going to have their way in the future development of English, given that they are now a minority of the people who speak it. English learners may prefer not to be bothered by what they see as mere hair-splitting.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a mass noun as

a noun denoting something, such as a substance or a quality, which cannot be counted; especially a noun which lacks a plural in ordinary usage and is not used with the indefinite article 

This definition points to the crux of the problem for English learners: the "in ordinary usage" part is hugely problematic for them. Can only native speakers determine what amounts to "extraordinary" usage and break a noun out of its usual countability box to use it in a different and legitimate way? It seems hardly fair to assume that when an English learner takes a noun outside of its usual usage it's down to ignorance, but when a native speaker does it, it's literary or imaginative license.

To be sure, even the most educated and refined nonnative speakers do commit countability gaffes, such as informations, furnitures, advices, and newses — all of which, to a native speaker, are more or less the equivalent of donning a babushka at an academic seminar. But even the most educated and refined native speakers are often at a loss to explain why things are the way they are. It can't really be argued that the distinction between count and mass nouns is a natural or instinctive one: children need to learn it, and are subject to correction about it until they know the drill. Observers of language take an interest in the phenomenon: in the last several years, subscribers to the American Dialect Society list have discussed the countability status — or noted exceptions to the rule — for a number of nouns, including rigatoni, chad, folk, code, troop, learning, slew, and availability. Finally, there are differences among English dialects in the countability status of some nouns: British English holds a number of items to be mass nouns (earache, toothache, and various food terms when used in cooking contexts, for example) that are usually treated as countable in American English.

We expect that the future will see a relaxing of some strict distinctions between mass and count nouns, and greater laxity in the use of the small words they govern — just as there is now little observation of the "proper" use of less with mass nouns and fewer with count nouns. But as long as educated native speakers, through their speech and writing, hold some sway in the development of English — and surely it is not snobbish or elitist to hope that they will — mass and count nouns will continue to live in happy coexistence for some time.

Michael Erard's articles (the first of them behind a subscription firewall) are here:

http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=mg19726491.300
http://www.wired.com/culture/culturereviews/magazine/16-07/st_essay

An essay we published a few years ago about the future development of English can be found here:

http://www.openenglish.com/blog/?p=38


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Friday August 1st 2008, 3:07 AM
Comment by: Susan B.
There was one line that I didn't fully grasp. The question at present, however, seems to be to what extent native speakers are going to have their way in the future development of English, given that they are now a minority of the people who speak it.

Is that to mean that out of the world's population, a minority of people speak any English? Or a minority of people speak native English? Or that more nonnative speakers speak English than native English speakers?
Friday August 1st 2008, 5:12 AM
Comment by: John C.
English is becoming (or has become) the lingua franca for the simple reason that it's so capable of incorporating words, or variants of words, from other languages, and is not rigorously controlled by a committee or other body defining what is correct and what is not, as is particularly true of French, but also to a somewhat lesser extent by arbiters of other languages. English is already a hybrid-- of Latin, by way of Italian, French, another Romance language, and German, from which it gets the "Saxon" of its Anglo-Saxon roots. We English speakers have no problem with taking words from these and other languages (even Chinese or Japanese transliterated into English spelling and pronunciation). We are also obsessed with synonyms-- we tend to find it childish or unsophisticated to repeat the same word over and over again in a sentence or paragraph, and are constantly looking for synonyms, which in many cases are not merely similar but essentially identical in meaning. I am not fluent in any other language, but I would bet that speakers of these are not nearly so concerned about avoiding repetition of words as we Anglophones are. (See, I did it there-- I didn't want to say "English speakers again, so I found a substitute). This tendency of English to incorporate words from other languages is the reason its vocabulary is so much larger than that of other languages, but also the reason it is the language of science, and a language which allows much greater flexibility and novelty of expression than, I believe, any other language does. Why do speakers of other languages study Shakespeare quite commonly, but most English speakers seldom study great writers in other languages (unless they are scholars in that particular language)? As for mass vs. count nouns-- what about "fish"-- we are taught that its plural is also "fish", but, as in the New Testament, we willingly accept the plural "fishes". Probably this was originally a mass noun, because fishermen, who made their living from fishing, were not concerned about the NUMBER of "fish(es)" they caught as the total mass or weight of (edible) fish flesh. Yet I doubt that these same fishermen had no problem with use of the alternative count noun plural.
Friday August 1st 2008, 9:18 AM
Comment by: Howard M.
Great column.

As an American who has struggled to learn other languages, I have both loved and hated delving into each languages' inconsistencies. One gets the opportunities to think from the perspective of both the new language and the native language.

One of my favorite examples is "baggage." Why is this a mass noun in English? "My baggage is in the hall. There are four suitcases."

Clearly, baggage can be counted. But did it become a mass noun when English speaking travelers carried with them so much baggage that it could not be counted?

Fun to think about.
Friday August 1st 2008, 9:21 AM
Comment by: Linda H. (Napa, CA)
I made an interesting observation after reading the Joni Mitchell example, "cheeses" and John C.'s reference to "fish" vs. "fishes". By adding the es to these two words one can also infer that the author wants the reader to think of an assortment of different vaireties of cheese or fish rather than a large quantitiy of one type.
Friday August 1st 2008, 10:06 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
The distinction between "less" and "fewer" that the article touched on is an interesting one. While "less" is supposed to apply to mass nouns (less information) and "fewer" to count nouns (fewer onions), these words are commonly misused even by native speakers (people frequently use "less" even for count nouns). For that reason, if the conjecture of this article proves true and mass nouns are converted to count nouns by the impatience of non-native speakers, my guess is that the correct application of "fewer" to them will not follow: We'll have the even more lamentable "less furnitures." Sigh.
Friday August 1st 2008, 10:18 AM
Comment by: Clifton S.
Unfortunately, "product" is a mass noun in "Business Speak."
Friday August 1st 2008, 10:20 AM
Comment by: Talley Sue H. (New York, NY)
Regarding this hypothetical sentence: "How many informations does your flash drive hold?"


This will be impossible to answer--precisely BECAUSE "informations" is not a count noun.

Nonfluent English speakers already say this, and fluent English speakers already can understand the gist of the question.

But never will they be able to directly answer it by saying something like, "It holds twelve informations."

There is a reason there are count nouns, and that is the precision needed by units of measure--12 gigabytes, 6 cups, one instance of repenting.

I think there may be individual words that will end up w/ a softening of their classification (much as has happened to "fish"--one can use "fishes" to mean individual animals (as well of course as to indicate multiple varieties), and this may happen to other words as well.

But a mass noun such as "information" is not likely to lose its status as a single thing.
Friday August 1st 2008, 10:29 AM
Comment by: Junghyun C.
In agreement with Linda,

The more I learn a foreign language, the more I realize its strength in bonding people, a culture, a nation. Truly, English has now become what one may look as a standard international communication media, yet it still holds, and will continue to hold, its underlying integrity as a language which was built throughout hundreds and thousands of years of heritages. For me, a language is more in feeling than in the rationality - if it feels that "fish" is a mass noun, then it simply is. Again, this is for me what basically constitutes a wall in learning foreign languages because we tend too much to understand it and, somehow, reason with.
Friday August 1st 2008, 10:35 AM
Comment by: Stephen S.
Precisely right, Linda H. That is one of the splendid, useful things about this distinction. Like the author of this article, I hope this aspect of the language will survive.

I would like to add to the discussion that in my many ongoing associations with international work groups of various sorts (software development, beta testing, hardware/software support, audio engineering, etc.), non-native speakers are:

a) humble and eager to learn, b) quick studies - they tend to "get it" quickly, and c) appreciative of any effort to educate them about native English grammar and usage. To a person, they want to speak (write) more like we do. I don't see any evidence that non-native speakers have any intent to alter the language, or force non-standard usage on us -- quite the contrary.

Another wrinkle is the difference between UK English and US English. Now in that case, I have occasionally encountered some snobism from UK-dwellers, but only rarely. And even in those cases, since it was an American company's own business-related forum, and the admin. made it clear they wanted to stick to US usage, the UK guys came around quickly.

And in most cases, most international groups I've encountered prefer to stick with US English rather than UK. However, many of us are fascinated (certainly I am) with the differences between the two. As Shaw put it, Americans and Britons are "two peoples separated by a common language."

Well, there is an example of the mass word being made plural, and for the very reason Linda H. suggests! So having come full circle, I'll sign off. ;-)
Friday August 1st 2008, 11:18 AM
Comment by: Michael M.
English has the marvellous ability, through many long centuries of practice, of absorbing not only new words from other languages when they look or sound to be useful, but also new dialects and forms of grammar when they have potential to make a point in a different way, thereby drawing appropriate attention to it, with or without the pieces of vocabulary that went with it.

People have been drawn to, or in some cases brought to, its shores over the centuries as a place of opportunity - from Saxon farmers to Flemish craftsmen, and they all brought useful parts of their languages with them, whether they be consistent with what they found there already or not.

The process goes on, to a far greater degree, in North America today - try understanding half of what you hear on any morning on the streets of Manhattan. But, eventually those "newbies" do have to come to some sort of lingua franca that they agree upon, so that they are able to at least understand each other over the basics, such as public "bathrooms", "conveniences","washrooms", lavatories", "the gents" and "the ladies". In the meantime, where have all the actual gents & ladies gone, anyway?
Friday August 1st 2008, 12:32 PM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Great discussion!

Last night my wife and I watched the French movie L'Auberge Espagnole, which turned out to be the name of a shared housing unit in Spain in which French, Spanish, U.K., and Italian housemates tried to get along with each other. The remarkable thing was that, even though it was situated in Spain, much of the discussion among the residents was conducted in English.

Most of them were at least becoming proficient in Spanish but everyone could speak English.

I knew an American Missionary who was located in Mindinao in the Philippines. He spoke Cibuano fluently. At a national church conference in Manila all the attendees were amused by the fact that the American translated speeches by Cibuano speakers into English so that the Tagalog pastors from Luzon could understand what was being said!

...still makes me smile.
Sunday August 3rd 2008, 4:46 AM
Comment by: chris P.
Many enlightenments....
Sunday August 3rd 2008, 5:42 PM
Comment by: Scott S. (APO, AE)
Junghyun C. makes a fantastic observation about thinking and culture within language. I have taught English in vastly different foreign countries. The underlying assumptions of Koreans and Germans can result in completely different readings of even simple sentences. Joni Mitchell's cheeses would obviously suggest a variety to a Frenchman--but probably not to someone from Japan. As an American, if she'd instead said pickles, she would probably have meant many of one type such as a jar. But to a Korean listener it would be at least as reasonable and probalby even easier to imagine many little dishes of various marinated and cultured vegetables.

I am one of those lucky people who gets to teach (nearly) everything. As a science, math and computer teacher the idea of number comes up constantly. I would suggest that there are technical and common variants such as "a datum" versus "more data" (a distinction which almost no one uses outside academia). We talk about information as an uncountable mass--when we require more precision we use units like megabytes (or teraquads for the Star Trek fans). We have many shorthand number words such as a pair of shoes, a dozen eggs, a gross of pencils, a ream of paper and a mole of carbon-12 atoms (a mole is Avogadro's number--approximately 6.02214√ó10^23--of some countable thing).

There are also usages that imply contextually variable countability such as "this gas is under more pressure" versus "Gus is facing an increasingly number of pressures in his life." (I'm sure someone else can come up with a better example.)

The immense flexibility and inclusiveness of English is a double edged sword. It's greatest strength may be its greatest weakness as well. I see legal problems in which there is no consistent understanding of basic words--and using it cross-culturally makes the problems worse. Many English words have more than one meaning. It's not uncommon for those meanings to be the same part of speech. Moreover, those meanings often have sharply distinct and even contrary definitions!

Lawmakers, judges and lawyers may need to migrate back to a dead language such as Latin, (or to at least translate their scholarship into a less dynamic language such as French or written Chinese), to safeguard their original meanings. But this creates problems for the people charged with enforcing the law.

We have already observed this slippery slope in effect when the U.S. Supreme court dissected the writings of the Bill of Rights (without reference to the records of the framers' early debates), to whimsically re-interpret the word "establish" to suit their own political agenda. Another example is when American children play with ladybugs*, something so verbally offensive-sounding that no decent Brit would even discuss it!
(*Br. ladybirds)
Monday August 4th 2008, 1:04 AM
Comment by: Rachel J. (D.N. ha-Ela Israel)
As a native speaker of American English, married to a British expat (that is, a "two nations divided by a common language" household), raising children in yet a third country (Israel), the language thing can get a little crazy. The word "family" presents an interesting difference: for the Brits, it takes a plural modifier ("His family are...") which, of course, sounds ridiculous to most Americans.

Then there are English-Hebrew complications. In Hebrew, for example, the words for "water" and "sky" are plural, and so our kids, when they were younger, often would end up saying things like "those waters" until they got the hang of things. And then there is the word "news," which in English is, oddly, considered a single noun, while in Hebrew it has retained its (literal) plural-ness; thus the email we got from a former landlord, regarding the birth of our first daughter, "Those are fantastic news!"

I agree, it's important for us to maintain the distinction between mass- and count-nouns, if only to provide ourselves with more opportunities for poetic license, as in the examples you cited.

Thanks for a great column.
Wednesday August 6th 2008, 5:20 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
This journey (into the world of the Visual Thesauris is going to become a wonderful adventure for me. I am a retired doctor with much experience as a native English speaker, so, can you believe it, I never heard of "mass" and "count" nouns.
Great job!
Friday August 8th 2008, 11:52 AM
Comment by: Hamad A.
interesting discussion folks. thanks.
Wednesday August 13th 2008, 8:35 PM
Comment by: Karen A.
Every language has its oddities: however, as an English teacher of language and literature, English is not any different or more difficult to learn than any other language. In fact, English is probably the most versatile language to learn because it's easier to make new words or put new words together based upon how and what is borrowed from other languages such as Latin, French, etc..
When a person is talking about the difference between mass nouns and single nouns, mass nouns do not need an "s" added to make it plural because the mass noun word implies/infers plurality. A single noun word implies/infers "one" thing. That is one item that is taught in any language.
Sunday August 17th 2008, 7:01 PM
Comment by: Simon Albrecht (Maidenhead United Kingdom)
And while we're about it team, can we ensure that we use the correct spelling when we mean licence (count noun) or license (verb)? Think advice / advise, practice / practise ....

Pedants rule, OK?!
Friday September 19th 2008, 5:48 PM
Comment by: Meical (Cardiff United Kingdom)
"I bring him apples and cheeses" - when I read this, I thought it expressed love and devotion - imagined a woman selecting the best apple of each variety to buy for her man in the local market, then going to a cheese shop to choose for him the variety of cheese which would go best with each apple.

I sat here for a while imagining and enjoying the combinations, but then read on to the conjecture that the 's' might indicate 'volumes' of some uncountable cheese! No way! Cheeses are countable!

I would expect any decent shop near where I live to have a wide variety of Welsh, English and French cheeses, and probably many more. But least I have a new interest now - to spend happy hours looking for new combinations of fruit and cheese. Mature Wensleydale with ripe apricots, for example...

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