Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Mass Confusion You Can Count On

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Mass Confusion You Can Count On

Article excerpt

When I as an editor have to talk with people about what's wrong with their prose, I often have to trot out some very scary terminology, such as "dangling participle," "subordinating conjunction," or "faulty parallelism."

It's sometimes enough to prompt me to feel a twinge of envy for people laboring in fields where the tools have simpler names, like "rake," "hoe," "shovel," or even "spade." It's always great to be able to call a spade a spade.

So I was thrilled a few years ago to discover that fellow wordsmiths use the simple straightforward terms "mass noun" and "count noun" to distinguish between, well - to distinguish between "stuff" and "things." "Stuff" is a mass noun. You may have more or less stuff, but there's no plural, as there is with "thing": If you have more than one thing, you have "things." Since "things" can be individually counted, "thing" is a count noun.

The mass vs. count distinction is less clear for newer terms whose usage is somewhat in flux. You wouldn't say "a stuff," but you're likely to say "an e-mail," even though some would insist that "e-mail" is a mass noun and that the correct way to refer to a single item within this mass is as "an e-mail message." After all, the traditionalists say, you get "mail" consisting of individual "letters"; you wouldn't say, "I got a mail from him today." But I'm not sure time is on their side.

The mass vs. count distinction matters in terms of articles ("an e-mail" or not), and the often prickly distinction between "less" and "fewer." "Less" goes with mass nouns, "fewer" with count nouns. That's why grammar vigilantes like to see signs that say "10 Items or Fewer," rather than "10 Items or Less," at the checkout lanes of the supermarket. (The rest of us just want to know that the people ahead of us have no more than 10 items.)

Some nouns are both mass and count. …

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