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Mass Nouns and Count Nouns

I don't own much furniture

Of the quantifiers discussed in the last section, one set is particularly troublesome. When used as independent pronouns, many and few are generally used for people and other animate beings, with much and less being used for everything else. The first pair can also appear as nominals with determiners:

(1) He seemed mad to many.
(2) He didn't do much.
(3) They attracted few.
(4) He gave less to the church.
(5) They attracted a few.
(6) He seemed mad to the many.

When used as postdeterminers, however, much and less (and little when used for quantities) are used only with a special group of nouns called mass nouns (or non-count nouns) because they cannot be counted. Most English nouns, of course, are count nouns and a few can be used in both ways (e.g., trouble). The list of mass nouns is pretty arbitrary, and we simply have to learn it as we learn the nouns that compose this. Native speakers generally seem to do this, but it can be a hard distinction to master as a adult.

(7) They carry many sofas in their store.
(8) I don't own much furniture.
(9) I want less rice with my meal.
(10) I need little soy sauce on my rice.
(11) You only gave me a few dishes.

Many mass nouns are hard-to-divide abstractions--goodness, truth, and beauty--belief, evidence, information--anger, disgust, resentment. Many of the terms we used which had singular nouns with no determiners--e.g., grammar, time--were mass nouns in such uses. But concrete items which are seen as an undifferentiated mass can also be treated as mass nouns:bread and cheese, coffee and tea, cake and sugar, whiskey and water, silver and gold, money and soap. We can divide such nouns up with expressions using of:

(12) I gave him a bit of advice.
(13) She gave me a look of disgust.
(14) He gave her a pound of chocolate.
(15) They gave me a glass of wine.
(16) You gave them a slice of meat.
(17) They gave you a piece of news.

Do not confuse mass nouns with collective nouns, those (usually singular) nouns which by their very nature refer to collective entities like the army, government, or police. Most such nouns can be count nouns, and a few can be used with many even when in the singular, as in sentence (18) through (20) below, while a few can also be mass nouns, as seen in (21) and (22):

(18) I didn't see many enemy.
(19) We didn't need many police.
(20) They didn't invite many family.
(21) You can't have too much government.
(22) We have too much administration as it is.

Exercise 1: Mass Nouns

Can you say which of the following can be used as mass nouns? If you feel tempted to use an expression like "a piece of," you may have a mass noun. Otherwise, you'll have to depend on your ear for the language. Most people seem to find it easier to distinguish between mass nouns used with much and count nouns used with many than to keep straight the use of less (mass) and few, so try using that pair as your test.
1.01 acid 1.11 laugh
1.02 bicycle 1.12 memory
1.03 brandy 1.13 nation
1.04 candy 1.14 pursuit
1.05 champ 1.15 reward
1.06 father 1.16 sofa
1.07 genius 1.17 sugar
1.08 gift 1,18 team
1.09 happiness 1.19 vinegar
1.10 haste 1.20 wine

Exercise 2: Complicated Subject Noun Phrases

Now that we've pretty much exhausted the possibilities of noun phrases, can you identify the simple subjects and the complete subjects of the following sentences?
1.01 Ron ran to Dan.
1.02 The man in the white hat walked in, and the girl behind him slinked in.
1.03 The last ten men we hired were from Waukesha.
1.04 I came, I saw, I conquered.
1.05 Guys with a big nose get all the girls.
1.06 The first girl in the window winked at me.
1.07 All the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty together again.
1.08 Both my upper teeth came out.
1.09 My maiden aunt always said that.
1.10 The many men in the shed over there coughed.

Just for the Record. Given that many determiners can stand alone as pronoun subjects or objects, some linguists have argued that determiners (D) are the true heads of what we have been calling Noun Phrases (NP), which ought, therefore, to be called Determiner Phrases (DP). The DP-Hypothesis is convincing and widely accepted among the linguists whose general approach we have been following so far. In English, for example, using it eliminates the embarassment of regarding demonstrative determiners and demonstrative pronouns as somehow different and it makes nominal adjectives less anomalous. Even so, it is likely to be some time before this hypothesis has any effect on standard handbooks, by which time the linguists will no doubt have moved on to something else. For our purposes, we'll continue to talk about noun phrases and NPs. That keeps us closer to the traditional vocabulary which we'll probably wind up using to talk to others. IPs are probably confusing enough for this course.

How Much of This Will be on the Test?
The distinction between mass nouns (or non-count nouns) and normal count nouns is a particularly arbitrary and useless one, but it certainly counts as a shibboleth, so you should learn to use them correctly. By this time you should also be getting good at identifying simple and complete subjects. The DP-Hypothesis is unlikely to be on any test, though I would have been remiss not to mention it.