Over the past 12 years, this column had pretty much covered every aspect of nouns that’s absolutely needed by lay learners of English, but then I got e-mail last weekend that took me by surprise with this very basic grammar question:
“Is there such a thing as a mass noun? If so, please differentiate it from a collective noun.”
Admittedly, although I’ve discussed count nouns and noncount nouns quite extensively, I don’t recall ever taking up mass nouns and distinguishing them from collective nouns. In my reply to Mr. Lino S. Cruz of Tandang Sora, Quezon City, I therefore took the opportunity not only to differentiate these two grammar terms but also to relate them to the broader classification of nouns into count nouns and noncount nouns.
Here’s my reply to Mr. Cruz:
Yes, there’s definitely such a thing as a mass noun. It denotes a substance or concept that’s not divisible into countable units and, in English in particular, it is preceded in indefinite constructions by such modifiers as “some” or “much” rather than by “a” or “one.” Typical examples are substances such as “water” and “air”; items such as “rice” and “furniture”; and concepts such as “dishonesty” and “happiness.”
As a rule, a mass noun can’t be directly modified by a number without providing a unit of measurement. Thus, we can’t say “12 waters” but can say “12 liters of water”; we can’t say “50 rices” but can say “50 kilos of rice”; and we can’t say “10 dishonesties” but can say “10 instances of dishonesty.”
One notable exception to this rule is when a mass noun is used to refer to different units or types of it. It then becomes countable; in the case of the mass noun “coffee,” for instance, it’s perfectly grammatical to say “She finished four coffees in ten minutes flat.”
Mass nouns actually belong to the category of noncount nouns, which denote things that can’t be counted because they are considered as a whole that can’t be divided into parts. The polar opposite of noncount nouns are, of course, the count nouns, which denote objects or ideas that can form a plural or be preceded by an indefinite article or numeral.
Specifically, we can use a count noun with a numeral, modify it by the words “many” or “few” and by the indefinite article “a” or “an,” and generally can affix “s” or “-es” to it to make it plural, as in “The business magnate has many cars—10 cars in all—and a private jet as well.” In contrast, we can’t do those things to a noncount noun. This is why in the case of the noncount noun “heat,” we can’t say “a heat” or “many heats”; we can only modify “heat” in terms of intensity, as in “extreme heat” or “95-degree heat under the shade.”
Now that it’s clear how mass nouns, count nouns, and noncount nouns differ from one another, we should be ready to differentiate a collective noun from a mass noun. A collective noun denotes a collection of persons, animals, or things regarded as a unit or taken as a whole. We shouldn’t confuse it with a mass noun, which, as defined earlier, denotes a substance or concept that’s not divisible into countable units.
Typical examples of collective nouns are “group,” “family,” and “confederacy”; they aren’t specific to a particular object and can be used to denote various kinds of collectives, as in “a group of insurance companies,” “a family of thieves,” and “a confederacy of dunces.” Specifically for the animal kingdom, though, English has an amazingly large subset of collective nouns known as terms of venery, or unique words for groups of particular animals, such as “a school of fish,” “a troop of baboons,” and “a parliament of owls” (http://tinyurl.com/nlwhegp).
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