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Mass noun

From Teflpedia

A mass noun is a noun whose referent is something that is unbounded, that is its meaning is envisioned as a mass that cannot be atomised into a number of discrete units or atoms.

In English, mass nouns are singular but cannot be referred to using an indefinite article a/an; in the absence of another determiner, a zero article is used.

Some noun lemmata are obligatory mass nouns, and must be used as such, such as information.

Meaning[edit | edit source]

Mass nouns are commonly things such as:

Semantic group Examples
Abstract concepts advice, evidence, happiness, luck, peace, research, wisdom.
Activities dancing, reading, writing
Materials metal, plastic, wood, etc.
Gases air, nitrogen
Liquids beer, milk, water, wine
Food bread, food, pizza, milk, rice, etc.
Item categories clothing, furniture, luggage, money
Natural phenomena gravity, heat, humidity, rain, snow, sunshine, thunder, warmth
Particulate matter flour, grit, rice, salt, sugar

Note words may belong to multiple categories above.

Form[edit | edit source]

Lexemes[edit | edit source]

Some lexemes are only ever used as mass nouns; these are uncountable singular lexemes. Other lexemes are mainly used as mass nouns, but can be used in a bounded (countable) sense in some contexts; e.g. oxygen is generally used as a mass noun, but if a chemist is talking about oxygen atoms, they can say e.g. "one carbon reacts with two oxygens to form carbon dioxide.” Most people do not pluralise evidence, but it is commonly pluralised within the literature of some religious communities.

Determination[edit | edit source]

In syntax, although an indefinite article cannot be used, the zero article can be replaced by other determiners. For example, we can say the furniture or my furniture when referring to specific furniture.

Alternatives to the indefinite article[edit | edit source]

  • advice an advice = some advice; a word of advice; a piece of advice
  • bread a bread = some bread; a piece/chunk/slice/loaf of bread
  • furniture a furniture = an item/a piece of furniture
  • lightning a lightning = some lightning; a bolt/flash of lightning
  • luck a luck = some luck; a stroke/bit of luck
  • luggage a luggage = some luggage; a piece/an item of luggage
  • news a news = a news item; an item of news; a news article; a piece of news
  • research a research = a piece of research
  • rubbish a rubbish = a load/piece of rubbish
  • thunder a thunder = some thunder; a clap of thunder
  • traffic a traffic = a lot of/some traffic

Pedagogy[edit | edit source]

In pedagogy, these are often referred to as "uncountable nouns", even though many of the lexemes used as mass nouns are countable.

Learner errors[edit | edit source]

English language learners will often incorrectly pluralise mass nouns. Common examples include *furnitures, *informations, etc. It may well be that these words are plurals in their L1. For example, information is countable in French; des informations.

Learners may also use an indefinite article with a mass noun. For example, in French un parking[1] is a loanword from English meaning “a car park" or "parking space"; learners may incorrectly translate it back into English as *a parking, whereas in English parking is always a mass noun.[2] If this error is made, it may be a covert error unless an indefinite article is used, making it an overt error.

References[edit | edit source]