Count nouns (or countable nouns, if you prefer) refer to things that can be counted, like chairs and hamburgers. I have one chair and he has three chairs. Jane ate one hamburger, but Stephen ate five hamburgers. Mass nouns are also known as uncountable nouns or non-count nouns, because they refer to things that either can’t be counted or aren’t generally counted.
While you could technically count the grains of rice in your bowl, that’s not really reasonable. That’s why you say you’re having a bowl of rice and not a bowl of rices. By contrast, you would say you’re having a bowl of grapes (and not a bowl of grape).
This might seem obvious, but there are a number of common mass nouns that are mistakenly “pluralized” all the time. Here are a few that have caught my eye.
People know me as a freelance writer, editor, and all-around “tech and Internet” guy. It’s what I do for a living. Just the other day, someone asked if I could give them “some feedbacks” on their new website. They should have asked for some “feedback” instead, because “feedback” is a mass noun.
Even if the feedback consists of several bullet points, which would then make it appear as if the feedback were countable, it’s still not “feedbacks.” The same applies to something like advice. You can ask for some advice, but you don’t ask for some advices… even if you’re asking multiple people for some help.
Broadly speaking, at least the way I typically use the word, swag refers to the “free stuff” I might receive at conferences, trade shows and industry events. These products are given away by companies oftentimes for promotional purposes. You get pens and t-shirts and other sorts of branded products. (There are other uses for the word “swag,” but I won’t get into them here.)
A big part of the confusion likely arises because these items are easily countable. I could host a contest where I give away ten pieces of swag… but it’s still “swag” and not “swags.” The word “merchandise” operates in much the same way.
For some reason or another, there’s this one episode of Bobby’s World that has stuck with me. Bobby wants to get this girl to like him, so his uncle says that girls like guys with money. (Let’s skip the discussion of why this is bad advice, as that’s a whole other can of worms.)
Some mass nouns, like money, can be really confusing, because “moneys” can still be correct under certain circumstances. It’s the same way that people and peoples can both be correct, but you have to use them the right way.
When quantifying mass nouns, you can’t really use a number. You don’t ask for three feedbacks. Instead, you can use a modifier: some feedback, much feedback, a little feedback. Alternatively, you can use “of” with a quantifiable unit: three pages of feedback.
Why is it, then, that you can ask for “two waters” at a restaurant? That’s because the actual unit is being assume: two glasses of water. By the same accord, “sugar” is considered an uncountable noun too. When someone asks for “two sugars” in their coffee, it implies two teaspoons of sugar.
And then there are instances where you might refer to the “waters of the South Pacific” and not the “water of the South Pacific.” English is weird.
Bread and Coffee
“Bread” and “coffee” are mass nouns too… except when they’re not. The server at a restaurant won’t ask if you’d like more “coffees” when offering a refill. However, she might ask if you’d like “some coffees” when taking your order, implying if you and your tablemates would like some cups of coffee.
But “coffee” can become a count noun when you’re talking about different varieties. The barista might say they have three “coffees” brewing: light, medium and dark roast. “Bread” works in exactly the same way, both as a countable and an uncountable noun.
Do you have any good examples of mass nouns that cause mass confusion? Chime in via the comments below and let’s work this out together.