A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
Not to be Counted On
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:
An essay we published a few years ago about the future development of English can be found here: