CS Sealey

Sydney-based sub-editor, writer and author

The difference between count nouns and mass nouns

TLDR: Count nouns can be counted (trees), mass nouns can’t (dust).

Essentially, a count noun is something able to be counted one at a time, so you can see the individual entities. If you take a moment to look up from your computer screen, phone or tablet, you can see many count nouns. Pens, windows, posters, cars, hats, birds, clouds, trees, buildings, that pile of reports you probably should be getting back to…

A count noun is preceded by its appropriate article.

One pen (singular)

The building (singular)

A window (singular)

This door (singular)

That phone (singular)

As well as every, each, either and neither for the singular.

Two magazines (plural)

The birds (plural)

Those cars (plural)

These parcels (plural)

Some letters (plural)

As well as any, a few and enough, plus the phrase number of for the plural count noun.

In comparison, a mass noun is a non-countable noun. This might sound confusing, considering that you’re talking about something concerning a mass of something — surely, that means there’s more of it, therefore plural. Not so.

Some things, despite consisting of multiple (not always alike) objects, are considered a singular thing. Consider these examples:

Furniture. While you could take a day to count the individual items of furniture in your office, classroom, bedroom or wherever you might be, the collective furniture is a mass noun that encapsulates it all neatly and requires a singular article.

The house was old but the furniture was strangely modern.

Stuff. This one is interesting, as it usually refers to multiple objects that are not always alike. However, while you might be able to take the time to separate it all into categories and then number them, you wouldn’t — hence why it’s a mass noun and uses a singular article.

What’s this stuff doing all over the floor?

Other mass nouns include:

Cutlery

Equipment

Air

Dust

Blood

Traffic

Mass nouns, however, can start to get a little bit abstract. Consider the following:

Knowledge

Advice

Evidence

Wisdom

The above are all considered plural entities, as you would not talk about someone’s knowledge as being a single thing they know but rather a collection of their life’s learnings. However, the words advice, evidence and wisdom can also be used in the singular, so it really depends upon the article used to determine whether a collection of things is being referred to or a singular. For example, you might refer to a piece of evidence in a court hearing or the evidence against him as a whole. Similarly, a word of advice can be given (though not a single word, more likely a sentence), but if multiple bits of advice are given, then the advice was sound.

If you’re unsure as to whether you’re dealing with a count or mass noun, there are a couple of signs to look for. Count nouns cannot be preceded by much or the amount of. Instead, they would use many and number of.

How many balloons did you buy?

The number of balloons I bought should be enough for the party.

Mass nouns, however, use much and amount of, and cannot be paired with many or number of, as they cannot be counted.

How much smoke is in the air today?

There’s a great amount of smoke in the air.

In true English form, there are, of course, exceptions. The zero plural marker is the instance where a count noun is pluralised but the word itself does not change. This deserves its own article, which I’ve now posted here.

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