In linguistics, a count noun (also countable noun) is a common noun that can be modified by a numeral and that occurs in both singular and plural form, as well as co-occurring with quantificational determiners like every, each, several, etc. A mass noun has none of these properties. It can't be modified by a numeral, occur in singular/plural or co-occur with the relevant kind of determiner.
Below we see examples of all these properties for the count noun chair and the mass noun furniture. As always in discussion
- Occurrence in plural/singular.
Some determiners can be used with both mass and count nouns, including "some", "a lot (of)", "no". Others cannot: "few" and "many" are used with count items, "little" and "much" with mass. (On the other hand "fewer" is reserved for count and "less" for mass, but "more" is the proper comparative for both "many" and "much".)
A common misunderstanding concerning the mass/count distinction is that it is based on the type of thing the different nouns refer to. Mass nouns are thought to refer to things (or substances) that can't be counted, while count nouns are supposed to refer to ones that can. That this can't be right is seen with our examples above, using chair (count) and furniture (mass). If we have seven chairs in a room, they can be described both as "chairs" and as "furniture". The mass/count distinction must therefore pertain to the expressions themselves ("chair" vs. "furniture") and not to the things they refer to. One may say that the noun "furniture" does not explicitly specify that it refers to individuals, while the noun "chair" does. Some substances (or abstract phenomena like fun and hope) have properties which make it difficult to refer to them with a count noun. For example, it is difficult to think about air as individuated chunks (unless we are discussing air at a molecular level). Consequently, we tend to refer to air with the mass noun "air". To be used as a count noun, it must be possible to think of the stuff being named as discrete individuals. In contrast, mass nouns can refer to just about anything, including individuals. Further, if we specify the unit of measurement, we can refer to even such substances as count, as in "two litres of wine". But the mass/count distinction remains a grammatical classification of expressions and not the sort of thing they refer to.
This is true despite the fact that most mass nouns in English can also be used in a countable form; when this happens the meaning of the word has shifted to something related but not identical. For example "air" is normally a mass noun, but sailors can speak of "light airs"; in this case "airs" refers not to the air itself but to breezes. "Justices" refers not to justice in the abstract but to persons who try to sift it—"beauties" not to the abstract but to beautiful objects—"butters" (in a restaurant) not to butter in the mass but to individual pats of butter.
Following the work of logicians like Godehard Link and linguists like Manfred Krifka, we know that the mass/count distinction can be given a precise mathematical definition in terms of notions like cumulativity and quantization. Recently, a new logical framework, called plural logic, has also been used for characterizing the semantics of count nouns and mass nouns.
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