Count/noncount nouns based on size?
October 15, 2014 8:14 AM   Subscribe

So, I was designing rules with some EFL students in class the other day about how to differentiate between countable and uncountable nouns. We agreed that things which are too small to reasonably count are uncountable based on sand and the idea that liquids are uncountable (under the assumption that an individual 'piece' of a liquid would be a molecule and as such very, very small). Then one of the students broke the rule by asking why individual circuits are countable even though they are extremely small. So, is there an explanation for this? Does my rule just suck?

I know a lot of times the answer is just "English is weird." However, I am hoping that perhaps there is a better answer this time. Or maybe there is a more satisfying rule that I could use to explain it away. Anyway, since there is probably no definitive answer, I am perfectly happy to hear opinions, guesses or shots in the dark. Thanks!
posted by Literaryhero to Education (24 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Mostly it's a combination of "things we use individually" vs "things we use as a big lot of them together" -- though compare rice vs peas, furniture vs chairs, fruit vs vegetables -- and English is weird.
posted by jeather at 8:22 AM on October 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

You can also google mass vs count nouns for lots of discussion on the history.
posted by jeather at 8:23 AM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here is my shot in the dark. Peas and liquids are uncountable because nobody counts them.

Now I'm not sure what the student means exactly by "circuits" (computer chips?) but anything that one orders wholesale with an intention to build products out of it, is likely to be counted by number because that's the most useful way of dealing with it.

I'll wager that if you go to a banana shipper they will treat bananas in an uncountable fashion (they probably ship tons or crates or containers of bananas), whereas hungry kids making their packed lunch would think of bananas as countable. Not because they CAN count them but because they DO count them.

So like furniture v chairs: Nobody counts how many pieces of furniture they have. But people might well count chairs, for example when people are coming over for dinner.
posted by emilyw at 8:29 AM on October 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

It might help your students to think of this not as about stuff in the world (rice vs. peas), but as about how language users are thinking about something (on preview, emilyw gives some good examples). Usually a word gets used just one way, but sometimes it can change with context. This is why you can go up to a counter and say "I'd like two waters, please" - because in this instance, you are packaging water up into a unit that you care about (servings, bottles, water.) This is related to the other way we have of packaging up mass nouns, adding a container/classifier/other description: cups of water, kinds of sand, etc.

Another example I like is that "Lego" is mass in Britain, but count in most parts of the US:

US English: There are Legos all over the floor! <>
British English: There's Lego all over the floor! <- for no better reason, the UK thinks about them as a mass of stuff. This sentence sounds weird to me, but I can also see the shade of meaning that changes - there's so much that I don't care about an individual block, I care about the group.
posted by heyforfour at 8:35 AM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I get where you are coming from, but you maybe aren't quite there.

It isn't so much the size of a thing as it is the nature of the thing, which I agree is a tough concept to try to get across, to speakers of another language especially!

When you would normally naturally refer to something in the singular although knowing it is made up of homogenous parts, that's an uncountable noun. So the hairs on someone's head is usually just hair to us. Sand rather than sands, fur rather than furs, etc.

But then there is the added difficulty of some nouns being countable AND uncountable!

I think this gives a reasonably good summary of uncountable nouns.
posted by misha at 8:40 AM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Sand" is a substance. Like "wood," or "water."

As opposed to countable objects, like "grains of sand" or "pieces of wood" or "drops of water."

"Circuits" are objects. "Circuitry" is a substance, so to speak.

Objects are countable. A substance is not.
posted by General Tonic at 8:45 AM on October 15, 2014 [15 favorites]

I've never heard this size thing. English IS weird in terms of countable/noncountable nouns, and the best way for them to get used to it is not to try to find a bunch of specific rules (alas), but to read and listen to so much English that they start to get a feel for it naturally. Also, they should make sure the dictionaries they use, regardless of format, specify count or noncount AND specify it for different meanings of a noun. Finally, if they make vocabulary cards, they should remember to note this information and to build it into their (short, meaningful, true) example sentences by using the correct articles and so on.

One rule of thumb is about things that are substances (e.g. concrete, flour, milk, wood, coffee) or building blocks or ingredients, but it's such a shaky rule that it doesn't help very much. And then restaurant jargon/times when we are talking about kinds of things (African coffees, hardwoods) confuses the matter. Sigh.

You can't just say substance/object, though, because that's oversimplifying too much: luggage, bread, equipment, garbage, etc. are not countable, but are definitely objects. Sure, you can say "Well, you can't count garbage, just bags of garbage," but that argument makes no sense to someone in whose language you CAN. It's a circular argument.
posted by wintersweet at 8:49 AM on October 15, 2014

Best answer: There's another angle to this that hasn't quite been addressed yet. Circuits aren't necessarily at all small. And apart from the circuitry within, say, a microchip, they're eminently countable. Each light switch in your home, for example, forms a single circuit looping through all the lights it controls.
posted by nobody at 8:51 AM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I came in to say what some others have said. It's not about how big or small something is; it's about mass versus count nouns. It's the difference between "money" (mass noun) and "dollars", "yen", "rupees", etc. (count nouns).

In examples like "drops of water" and "bags of garbage", keep in mind that what you are quantifying there are (respectively) "drops" and "bags"--which are indeed count nouns.
posted by methroach at 8:52 AM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

A noun is countable in a particular sentence if you can say 'one___, two___, three____'. If you can't, then it's not. That's it, in a nutshell.

For example:

sand (n) = uncountable BUT grain (n) of sand = countable
water (n) = uncountable BUT molecule (n) of water = countable
glass (n - the material) = uncountable BUT glass (n) of water = countable

If in doubt, put the noun in a sentence. If you can assign a number to it and make it plural ('Six grains of sand'), it is countable. If you can't ('Six sands'...nope), then it's not.


Note that some nouns have countable and uncountable forms, whereas some have only one or the other: for example,

'sunshine' is always uncountable, as there is no context in which 'five sunshines' makes sense.

'Water' can be countable OR uncountable in a given sentence, depending on the context - in the sentence 'We swim in water', it is uncountable, but in the sentence 'Can I have a water', it is countable (since it is shorthand for 'a glass/bottle of water') Again, you can always check by making it plural: 'Can I have three waters, please?' in a café where bottled water is sold? Sure!)

'Chair' is always countable. If a noun is ONLY countable, then you can't have 'some' of it. There is no 'some chair'.

(That is why context is v important: some nouns are countable in some sentences and uncountable in others.)

Hope that helps: I'm an ex-EFL teacher, and that's what I emphasized to my students (and then did lots and lots of practice ;)
posted by Salamander at 8:53 AM on October 15, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Circuits were bigger when the language was solidifying around them, and I think of them as being countable because the location and function of each one is important. "This sand here and those two sands over there" is not the sort of thing that needs to be said often, while "this circuit is broken, and that is affecting those two circuits over there" is a thing that often needs to be conveyed.

I think the Lego example upthread is a handy one; what the students are learning is the answer to the question "what does this culture consider to be an undifferentiated mass, and what does this culture consider to be individually relevant and interesting?" Money, sand, water, Lego (UK): undifferentiated mass. Circuits, pennies, bacteria, Legos (US): Individually relevant. It might be a useful exercise to think up a bunch of more and less obvious cases and see what cultural assumptions they bring to it. Might be easier for them to remember if they know that they tend to be more individualizing, or less, compared to the English they're learning.
posted by tchemgrrl at 9:01 AM on October 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

Salamander has it. Size is irrelevant.

Circuits are small, sure, but they are themselves made up of various smaller components (also countable!). Each circuit is not simply an homogenous grouping of circuit particles.

You can have one, two, three integrated circuits (ah ah Ah!). That's what makes them countable. Like a plate of beans.
posted by misha at 9:02 AM on October 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm sorry, but the answer is "English is weird." There might be etymological/historical reasons for any particular noun to behave the way it does in these contexts, and you might be able to come up with a heuristic to help your students make good guesses >50% of the time. But there's no water-tight rule that determines the distinctions you're talking about—you just have to memorize them, the same way English speakers learning (e.g.) French have to learn which nouns are "masculine" and which are "feminine."

("Tears" btw is an example of a liquid substance that is nonetheless a "countable" noun—you'd say "I have a beakerful of tears" not a "beakerful of tear." Not sure how we got that beaker full of tears in the first place but we're talking about learning one of the weirdest parts of English here so maybe not surprising!)
posted by aparrish at 9:02 AM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

"This sand here and those two sands over there" is not the sort of thing that needs to be said often...

That's not the sort of thing that needs to be said ever. The phrase "those two sands over there" is not grammatically correct, because "sand" is not a countable noun, and cannot be made plural. Maybe you mean "sand grains."
posted by General Tonic at 9:14 AM on October 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

Hmm. Interesting example.

You can catch three tears and collect them in a beaker, sure, but once they are in that beaker they become uncountable, because now they are (virtually) inseparable. Not like someone can come along and say, here, let me count how many tears you have there, pour out the beaker and just divide them up again.

So they are an undifferentiatable substance that nonetheless is cumulatively referred to in the plural case.

Which is yet another example of why English is a tough language to learn, and listening to common usage is probably going to work better than trying to devise rules to account for the weirdness.
posted by misha at 9:17 AM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

"sand" is not a countable noun, and cannot be made plural
sands of time, like sands through the hourglass, etc.
Rules are a good guide, not absolutes when it comes to language.
posted by soelo at 9:28 AM on October 15, 2014

Don't get too caught up in the size/substance/material. The main things to remember:

- If you can measure it with numbers, it is a count noun. It makes sense in phrases like "three crashes" or "number of accidents" (in the latter example, it should be that and not "amount of accidents").
- If you refer to it as a quantity or collective of something, it is a mass noun. It makes sense in phrases like "amount of money" or "very little crime".

* "Crime" is of course both a mass noun and a count noun. Context!
posted by methroach at 9:30 AM on October 15, 2014

"sand" is not a countable noun, and cannot be made plural
sands of time, like sands through the hourglass, etc.
Rules are a good guide, not absolutes when it comes to language.

Yep. This is why context is everything.

OP, when your students ask you 'Is x countable or uncountable?' where x is a noun, ask them to put it in a sentence. Because there are so many nouns that can be both.

Take another example: 'football'. Countable or uncountable? Consider two sentences:

a) He got a new football for his birthday.
b) I watched football on tv yesterday.

In sentence a), football is a countable noun. (Questions to ask yourself to check: can you make it plural: 'He got three new footballs for his birthday'? Yes.)

In sentence b), football is an uncountable noun. (Can you make it plural: 'I watched 4 footballs on tv yesterday'? No. Makes no sense. Four games of football? Yes. Four matches of football? Yes. But then you are making the nouns 'game' and 'match' plural, and counting them, not the noun 'football')

Always consider whether nouns are countable or uncountable in a context.
posted by Salamander at 9:40 AM on October 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

Consensus among linguists seems to be that there's no strict logic to it. "Rice" is mass and "bean(s)" is count. "Parsley" is mass and "chive(s)" is count. "Furniture" is mass and "chair(s)" is count. "Knowledge" is mass and "belief(s)" is count. "Diarrhea" is mass and "headache(s)" is count.

In some extreme cases, there are mass and count nouns referring to exactly the same thing: "cattle" is mass and "cow(s)" is count, "silverware" is mass but "fork(s)," "spoon(s)" and "knife/knives" are all count.

There are also nouns that can behave either as mass or as count: "hair" acts like it's mass in "he has a lot of hair," but acts like it's count in "he has three hairs left." And there's dialect variation, as heyforfour points out with "Lego."

And then there's the fact that different languages handle this stuff differently. English "furniture" is mass, but Spanish "mueble(s)" is count, even though they come pretty close to having the same meaning.

If there were a strict logical rule telling you whether the name of a given thing should be mass or count, based on the properties of that thing, we wouldn't see any of those patterns.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:07 AM on October 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

> Maybe you mean "sand grains."

No, I meant "sands" because I was specifically demonstrating the way in which it was grammatically incorrect. It is rare for a person to have a greater need of describing a specific grain of sand than it is for them to need to describe sand as a material, as a collective clump of indeterminate size. If they need to get more specific, they can use more words. A circuit is more likely to need to be referred to in the singular, so linguistically it's more efficient to say "two circuits". If English speakers thought of circuitry as they think of sand, then our language might have evolved to describe a grain of circuitry, but they don't, so it doesn't. The grammar for these things came after the things themselves, and I'm perfectly willing to believe that "two sands" is grammatically correct in some other language. But *we* don't say it, because we don't see sand as having any individuality.

It's a difficult thing to verbalize because it is so natural, which is why I thought that a cultural approach might be a useful tack. It's interesting to me that UK English speakers bootstrapped "Lego" onto the language for modeling clay and US English speakers bootstrapped "Lego" onto the language for blocks. It's a useful way to show just how arbitrary this corner of the grammar world is.
posted by tchemgrrl at 10:22 AM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

English is weird. After all, your students wear a *pair* of pants, even though that refers to a singular undivisible clothing item; they also wear a *pair* of shoes, which can be counted as either one matched set OR two separate shoes.
posted by easily confused at 11:06 AM on October 15, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers everyone! I actually was looking for an answer to this one specific instance and not a general overview of count vs. noncount, but even the responses that didn't really answer the question were interesting. Yay!

The tears argument though I think isn't all that tricky. We just happen to use 'tears' when what we actually mean is 'teardrops'. In my esteemed opinion anyway.
posted by Literaryhero at 2:52 PM on October 15, 2014

Response by poster: The argument that some circuits are big, though, is exactly what I was looking for. While most people disagree with the idea of size being a differentiator, I still think it largely works. Substances can be broken down to the molecular level or whatever while still retaining their properties and are therefore 'small'. Add in a rule about abstract concepts and we are pretty close to nailing it down, I think.

Incidentally, I realize that making general rules is a bad way to go about teaching grammar because there are always exceptions. However, working as a class to make rules and then discussing ways to break them has always been an effective way for me to get the learners to critically engage with the material.
posted by Literaryhero at 3:39 PM on October 15, 2014

Best answer: I'm going to posit that when the student said "individual circuits", they really meant "individual components", or even "individual transistors". The CAD software used to design chips will keep track of the number of transistors and other artifacts inside the chip. These transistors will often be grouped into clusters to perform specific functions (NOR gate, Inverter) which could be called "components". And these components will often be clustered into even larger assemblies (Multiplexor, Adder) - which would also be considered "components". I'm simplifying this a bit, but I trust you get the general idea.

Furthermore, the word "circuit" tends to get abused when people talk about electrical stuff. You could argue that the North American electrical grid and everything that is plugged into it is a "circuit".

I'm not sure if this helps or not.
posted by doctor tough love at 8:59 AM on October 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

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