Thursday, February 05, 2009

Countability and unmarked plurals

Recently, I've run into a few situations that have called for some clarification of what it means for a noun to be countable. You may be curious about just where I run into these things. Do people buttonhole me at parties? Grill me at conferences? Stop me on the street? Sadly, no. Most often these issues come up during some sort of net-mediated interactions.

Anyhow, one particularly observant and self-aware correspondent writes:
"One of the thrills of creating material for students is discovering new areas of my own lack of knowledge. When designing a worksheet on countable and uncountable terms, my examples didn't really work out right.

I had neatly laid out three zones on the sheet: countable, uncountable and those that can be either (like paper and hair), and assigned examples of each from the students' vocabulary lists.

The nouns 'sheep' and 'fish' are not given 's' or 'es' when applied to plural use (in North American English), so I've simply referred to them as 'uncountable' in the past, and placed them into the uncountable zone. But almost instantly, I realized they didn't fit the patterns I was trying to illustrate.

There might be 'many sheep' in the field, but there darn sure aren't 'very much sheep', to my ear anyhow. There are 'a few fish' in the tank, but not 'a little fish'. These seem to act stubbornly as countable categories.

Which tells me that some noun categories are countable, but their labels (like fish and sheep) just don't get a plural form adjustment.

What are the correct terms and categories for these items? What else am I missing?"
Of course, he's quite right that countability of nouns is best looked at by considering the determiners they will allow rather than their morphology. Nouns like sheep simply have a plural form that is identical in shape to their singular form. These are often referred to as unmarked plurals. An analogy with verbs would be something like put, for which the plain form, plain present tense, past tense, and past participle all share a shape. Most verbs have past tense forms and past participle forms that share a shape (shape here encompasses both spelling and pronunciation).

Another issue is that most nouns have both countable and uncountable senses, though typically one sense dominates. Almost all "uncountable" nouns have a plural sense indicating types (e.g., Belgium produces many fine beers.)

There are few nouns that are singular only. I once believed that equipment was one, but I was mistaken. The following are a few that I can think of, but feel free to prove me wrong:
  • crockery, footwear, perseverance, nonsense
  • italics, linguistics, mumps, news
There are also a few plural only nouns. I think I got these examples from the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, though I don't honestly recall.
  • belongings, clothes, genitals, pants, remains
  • cattle, police, vermin
In some language like Chinese, it is my understanding that no basic nouns are countable. All must be identified with a counter (e.g., two cups of water, one rod of pencil, three sheets of cookie).

Finally, it's interesting to note that even among languages that make a countable/uncountable distinction, there is little agreement on what is counted (again, examples may be from the CGEL or perhaps from Pinker's The Stuff of Thought).
  • spaghetti: countable in Italian but not in English
  • hair: countable in French but not in English
  • peas: now countable in English, but previously uncountable pease
Indeed, we can look at almost anything both ways:
  • opinions, advice
  • stories, fiction
  • facts, knowledge
  • holes, space
  • songs, music
  • naps, sleep
  • lies, bullshit


Anonymous said...

I can confirm that nouns cannot be directly quantified; a so-called "measure word" must be used. The correct one to use depends on the category of the noun. Wikipedia has a long list of them.

Anonymous said...

I was greatly surprised to learn that spaghetti (which is countable in French) is strictly a mass noun in English. Does this apply to all types of Italian pasta?

Brett said...

There are too many types of pasta for me to say for sure, but I believe that they are all uncountable in standard English.

Anonymous said...

Oops, my earlier comment lacks sufficient context... I was confirming the part about nouns in Chinese.

Anonymous said...

Wow, you have to use a measure word in Chinese each time?? In Korean and Japanese you can usually get away with using a different kind of number word that doesn't need them, which is handy because even native speakers can't remember them all.

I usually explain to my students that countable and uncountable is just a grammatical category and that being able to count or not or how much it is like a liquid is not the fundamental truth of it, it's just an easy way of remembering some of them and of drawing parallels between languages. State and action verbs are kind of similar.

Most uncountable words having a countable form wasn't something I'd realised before. I wonder if excluding the meaning of "kinds of" gets rid of most of them