mass/count nouns

Date: Wed Sep 10 1997 - 17:31:44 EDT

Recently John Kendall wrote:

Now I am aware of the danger of analysing Greek in terms of English
but I can certainly think of examples in normal English where concrete count
nouns are used in a purely qualitative sense. Perhaps, out of my linguistic
ignorance, I've analysed these wrongly but this is how I'd apply my
to the English nouns "cat" and "man" in the following sentences.

Definite: The cat(s) from next door is/are a nuisance.
Indefinite: A cat/Some cats crept into the house before he went on
Generic: The cat is an elegant creature.
                A cat is an elegant creature.
                Cats are elegant creatures.
Qualitative: He returned from holiday and as he entered the house he could
smell cat.

End quote

The problem here is that you can't take a noun out of context and determine
if it is a count or non-count (mass) noun. Count or non-count is determined
by usage in context. If a word is usually used as a count noun, a dictionary
or grammar might call it a count noun, but that does not mean that it cannot
be used as a non-count noun. Consider "chicken" (usually considered a count
noun) in the following sentence: "I had chicken for dinner last night." Here
"chicken" is non-count. This is a fairly common use of the word so some
dictionaries list the meaning "fowl" as a count noun, and the meaning "the
flesh of that fowl" as non-count. In the same way, I could say, "I had cat
for supper," and that would be a non-count use of the word. Your sentence
"He returned from the holiday and as he entered the house he could smell
cat," would be slightly less objectionable to cat lovers, but is still a
non-count use of the term. Dictionary makers must ignore the rather unusual
uses of "cat" in this paragraph.

Words that are generally used in a non-count sense can be used with a count
sense. Take for instance the word "salt" (usually non-count) in the
following sentence: "Most chemists have several salts on their laboratory
shelves." Or consider "beauty" (usually non-count) in this sentence uttered
by an archeologist who has just unearthed a well preserved coin: "Look at
this beauty!" Here "beauty" is a countable noun.

David R. Mills
ESL Instructor
Creighton University

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