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Mass Nouns: What Are They, and Why Should I Care?

Have you heard of mass nouns? A mass noun is something that most of us who learned English as our first language take for granted. It is a grammatical concept we know… well, just because we know it. It’s not something that I recall ever having been taught, not even as an English major in college.

When we know grammatical concepts instinctively – or think we know them instinctively – we often mess up. And when writing professionally in any form, be it a cover letter for a job application, or a thesis paper for class, we really don’t want to look stupid. (Yep. I said it.)

Because that potential boss or college professor likely knows the rule. And if they know it and see that you don’t – well, that’s just not something we want, is it? So, in order to know what a mass noun is, let’s start from the top!

We All Know What a Noun Is

We already know that a noun is a person, place, or thing. This is straight out of grammar 101, so no problem, right?

Let’s just throw out a short list of nouns:

    Dog
    Wisdom
    Ball
    Admiration
    Beer
    Coffee
    Intelligence
    Car
    Clothing
    Awareness

Looking at the words above, do you notice something different about them when comparing one noun to another? Think about it for just a second before reading on.

What did you notice? Probably that some of these nouns are more concrete than others. Ball is a concrete noun. It is a tangible item that we can see and feel. So are the nouns car and dog.

But what about the others? Awareness, intelligence, admiration, and wisdom are not tangible. They are more abstract than dog, etc. All abstract nouns are mass nouns, but not all mass nouns are abstract.

For instance, while clothing certainly can be seen and touched, it’s a bit more nebulous than say, shirt, skirt, or tie. Why? Because clothing is a category under which shirt, skirt, and tie fall. Therefore, while clothing is not an abstract noun, it is a mass noun.

Count Nouns and Mass Nouns

What the exercise above was meant to do was get you thinking about how nouns can be very different from one another. There are concrete nouns, and abstract nouns.

To take this idea another step further, there are count nouns and mass nouns (also called non-count nouns).

In its most simple form, you can think about count nouns as more concrete nouns – and of course, nouns that can be counted.

Likewise, mass or non-count nouns are those that are either more abstract, or simply not easily quantifiable – at least not without the assistance of quantifying nouns coupled with numbers.

Count Nouns

Here are a few general rules for count nouns (to which there are always exceptions).

  • Have both a singular and plural form
  • Can be made plural by adding an s
  • A simple number can tell you how many there are
  • Can be preceded by a definite article (the) or an indefinite article (a)
  • Modifiers such as a, an, many, or one can be used with them
    • And NOT with mass nouns

Examples of Count Nouns

    A cat crossed in front of Sherry’s car.

An indefinite article (a) was used. We have no idea which cat, just some random cat.

    Three cats crossed in front of Sherry’s car.

The plural of cat was easily formed by adding s, and the number three told us how many. The actual number is not necessary, but it is more specific.

Mass Nouns (Non-count Nouns)

  • Are used only in the singular
  • Don’t have a plural form
  • Are uncountable by using a number
  • Words that indicate amount can quantify them

Examples of Mass Nouns

    The woman’s intelligence was obvious, and after she spoke you could hear a pin drop in the room.

Now, can we simply add an s to intelligence to make it plural? For example, 4 intelligences? Obviously not, because intelligence is abstract and not easily quantifiable. Therefore, it is a mass noun.

What about admiration?

    The CEO at the symposium had everyone’s admiration.

Can we add a number and an s to make this plural, like 7 admirations? Again, obviously not. This noun is also a mass noun.

Categories of Mass Nouns

Mass nouns can fall into one of several categories. To give you an idea of what these are, I’ve compiled a list. Obviously, this is NOT an exhaustive list! But it is meant to give you an idea of which types of nouns are mass nouns.

Concepts: Independence, poetry, privacy, satisfaction, oppression, justice, equality

Liquids, gases, and things made of small particles: Water, coffee, beer, soda, milk, juice, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, smoke, vapor, steam, helium, flour, sugar, salt

Food: Eggs, cheese, bread, pasta, stew, soup, meat

Natural qualities: Pessimism, optimism, awareness, bravery, morality, honesty

Categories of items: Clothing, furniture, weather, merchandise, luggage, jewelry

Natural forces or phenomena: Gravity, heat, cold, wind, snow, rain, mud, rust

Materials: Lumber, metal, plastic, wood, steel

Activities: Running, walking, writing, training, studying

Pluralizing Mass Nouns

Always remember that you cannot use a number to quantify mass nouns. If you tried, it would look like this: Four water, six cold, five walking, eight rain. Clearly, that doesn’t make any sense. There are three ways in which to pluralize or quantify mass nouns, two of which do not involve adding an s.

1. Using a Count Noun and the Word Of

Use a count noun with the word of in front of the mass noun:

  • four gallons of milk – gallon is the count noun
  • ten sticks of butter – stick is the count noun

You can also move around the count noun:

  • ten oxygen tanks – tank is the count noun
  • three boxes of jewelry – box is the count noun

2. Using a Measurement and the Word Of

You can also quantify a mass noun by using a unit of measurement, then of, then the mass noun.

    Three feet of wood
    Four inches of snow
    Five pounds of flour

Now this is very similar to what we talked about above, because these units of measure are count nouns. But I wanted to mention that units of measure work in some instances.

3. Using the Letter S

There is actually a way to use the plural of a mass noun with the addition of the letter s, but it really happens most frequently in the food and liquids category.

    That store carries the finest wines and cheeses.

This happens when you are talking about categories of nouns, in this case foods. Here, you are not just talking about cheese, the noun. You are talking about an entire category of cheeses. The same is true of the wines.

I hope that this helped you to get an idea of what these types of nouns are and how to use them. As I said at the beginning, we all probably know much of this instinctively. However, knowing why we do things the way we do can be very helpful in avoiding mistakes in the future.

P.S. Become a better writer. Find out more here.

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