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In linguistics, a count noun (also countable noun) is a common noun that can be modified by a numeral and occur 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.

Contents

Examples

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.
There is a chair in the room.
There are chairs in the room.
✗ There is a furniture in the room.
✗ There are furnitures in the room.
Every chair is man made.
There are several chairs in the room.
Every furniture is man made.
✗ There are several furnitures in the room.

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".)

Misunderstanding

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.

Theory

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. [1]

Linguistic Differences

Some languages treat all nouns as basically mass, and need to make use of a noun classifier to add numerals and other quantifiers. To take an example from Mandarin Chinese, which marks count(ed) nouns with a noun classifier:

那人吃完了 (nà rén chī wán le)

can equally well mean "That person has eaten" or "Those people have eaten" - you're not counting them, so you don't need a classifier, and Mandarin doesn't distinguish singular vs. plural

那位人吃完了 (nà wèi rén chī wán le) means "That (one) person has eaten"
那三位人吃完了(nà sān wèi rén chī wán le) means "Those three people have eaten"

A classifier, therefore, implies that the object(s) referred to are countable in the sense that the speaker intends them to be enumerated, rather than considered as a unit (regardless of quantity).

On the other hand, words such as "milk" or "rice" are not count nouns, but they can be counted with an appropriate unit of measure (e.g. "glasses of milk" or "spoonfuls of rice"). This leads to another example from Mandarin to illustrate some further points about count nouns:

  • 她有七本书在桌子上 (tā yŏu qī bĕn shū zài zhuōzi shàng) - "She has seven books on the table."
  • 他写完七本书 (tā xiĕ wán qī bĕn shū) - "She has written seven books"

In both cases, the word "book" is a count noun, and in Mandarin take the classifier 本 (bĕn).

This use of a classifier is similar to, but not identical with, the use of units of measurement to count groups of objects in English. For example, in "three shelves of books", "shelves" is used as a unit of measurement, and books is indeed a mass noun, since the speaker is not counting individual books - she is counting shelves of books. By contrast, in the sentence "At 10 books per shelf, you have 30 books," both instances of "books" are an example of a count noun, and require a "measure word" in Chinese (or, as linguists sometimes call it, a "noun classifier", of which measure words are one type).

Different languages may treat "measured nouns" differently from "count nouns"; some, like Mandarin, will require a classifier before the unit of measure, while others may not require them at all.

三杯杯子面 (sān bēi bēizi miàn) - "Three [classifier] cups (of) noodles"
三块面 (sān kuài miàn) "Three [classifier] noodles".

Notice that the classifier changes as the unit being counted changes.

References

  1. ^ Nicolas, D. (2008). "Mass nouns and plural logic". Linguistics and Philosophy 31 (2): 211–244. doi:10.1007/s10988-008-9033-2. http://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/docs/00/28/55/22/PDF/Nicolas-Mass-nouns-and-plural-logic-Revised-2.pdf. Retrieved 2009-12-27.  

See also

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