In linguistics, a mass noun (also uncountable noun or non-count noun) is a common noun that is best identified by its syntactic properties, and especially in contrast with count nouns. The semantics of mass nouns is highly controversial. Given that different languages have different grammatical resources, 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 liters of water" while the count noun "chair" is quantified as "20 chairs." However, mass nouns (like count nouns) can be quantified in relative terms without unit specification (e.g., "much water," "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.
Sometimes a noun has both a mass usage and a count usage (for example, paper).
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; such mass nouns 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"; though both chair and furniture are referring to the same thing, the former is a count noun and the latter a mass noun.
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.
Full article ▸