Author Topic: We shouldn’t mistake mass nouns for collective nouns  (Read 10578 times)

Joe Carillo

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We shouldn’t mistake mass nouns for collective nouns
« on: January 18, 2019, 03:19:41 AM »
Over the past 16 years, I thought that my columns in The Manila Times had pretty much covered every aspect of nouns that’s absolutely needed by lay learners of English, but I surprisingly got e-mail from a Quezon City reader sometime ago asking this very basic grammar question:

“Is there such a thing as a mass noun? If so, please differentiate it from a collective noun.”

I therefore welcomed the opportunity to differentiate these two grammar terms and to relate them to the broader classification of nouns into count nouns and noncount nouns.

Yes, there is definitely such a thing as a mass noun. It denotes a substance or concept that isn’t 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,” and neither can we say “10 blatant discourtesies” but say “10 blatant expressions of discourtesy” instead.

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 but figurative to say (in terms of cups and mugs of it) “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 “low heat,” “extreme heat,” or “95-degree heat under the shade.”

                                             IMAGE CREDIT: EN.ISLCOLLECTIVE.COM

Now that it’s clear how mass nouns, count nouns, and noncount nouns differ from one another, we are 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 are not 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 pack of wolves,” “a troop of baboons,” “a school of fish,” “a murder of crows,” “a covey of quails,” “a gaggle of geese,” “a convocation of eagles,” and “a parliament of owls.”  

(Next: How the three kinds of objects work in English)      January 24, 2019

This essay, 1,127th of the series, appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the Campus Press section of the January 17, 2019 print edition of The Manila Times, © 2019 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: January 18, 2019, 10:09:03 AM by Joe Carillo »