Which mass noun has the largest individual units?
May 20, 2018 5:09 PM   Subscribe

Which mass noun has the largest individual units? Some mass nouns signify non-physical concepts (e.g. peace), others something that can be made up of different kinds of things (e.g. trash), while some refer to liquids (e.g. gasoline). But some refer to a substance that's made up of individual units of the same thing (e.g. wheat, spaghetti, rice). I'm interested in that last category. Which mass noun in that category has the largest individual units? The biggest I've thought of is "bacon".

If you're not sure whether the word is a mass noun or a count noun with a plural that's identical to the singular, a rule of thumb is putting "many" in front and see if it's natural. For instance, "many buffalo" or "many shrimp".

I'm not looking for collective nouns, e.g. rasher of bacon or school of fish.

I'm also not looking for words that can be mass nouns and also count nouns (e.g. waste/wastes, steak/steaks, ocean/oceans).
posted by Kattullus to Writing & Language (77 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
What about a word like acreage?
posted by eirias at 5:18 PM on May 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


Sand?
posted by peep at 5:20 PM on May 20, 2018 [4 favorites]


forest?
posted by fancyoats at 5:20 PM on May 20, 2018


Wait, I was assuming largest NUMBER of individual units. Do you mean largest in size of a single unit?
posted by peep at 5:22 PM on May 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


The first one that came to mind: "furniture." And then the second one, because you need a place to put that furniture: "housing," though that's more questionable since it might just be an abstract noun and not a collection of housing...units....

"Acreage" and "forest" don't meet the criteria of being exclusively mass nouns, so those probably don't work for you.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 5:26 PM on May 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


Individual pieces of ice are arbitrarily large, if an iceberg is "some ice".
posted by hades at 5:30 PM on May 20, 2018


Cattle is a mass noun and the individual units that make it up are larger than strips of bacon. But I'm not sure if qualifies as "a substance that's made up of individual units of the same thing".
posted by great_radio at 5:32 PM on May 20, 2018


Would “pork” work as per your example or it too undefined?
posted by raccoon409 at 5:33 PM on May 20, 2018


eirias: What about a word like acreage?

"Acreage" isn't made up of individual units in the same way that "area" isn't made up of individual units.

fancyoats: forest?

A forest is a collective noun (a forest of trees).

peep: Wait, I was assuming largest NUMBER of individual units. Do you mean largest in size of a single unit?

Yes, I mean largest size of a single unit.

kutsuwamushi: The first one that came to mind: "furniture." And then the second one, because you need a place to put that furniture: "housing."

Furniture and housing isn't made up of individual units of the same thing.

hades: Individual pieces of ice are arbitrarily large, if an iceberg is "some ice".

The smallest unit of ice is an ice crystal.

great_radio: Cattle is a mass noun

Cattle is a plural noun.

raccoon409: Would “pork” work as per your example or it too undefined?

Yeah, there's no single unit of pork.
posted by Kattullus at 5:39 PM on May 20, 2018


Quasar
posted by The Gaffer at 5:41 PM on May 20, 2018


Cordwood, which is made up of short split pieces of logs
posted by BillMcMurdo at 5:43 PM on May 20, 2018


I think you're wrong about furniture. If I'm talking about "my furniture" I'm speaking about many different units in my house. And I wouldn't say "how many furniture do you have?" I would say "How much furniture do you have?"

Ditto housing: "How much available housing is there?" not "How many available housing" and "housing" is made up of many housing units. I think housing is the clear winner thus far.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:46 PM on May 20, 2018 [3 favorites]


What is your definition of "the same thing"? I would say that furniture is made up of pieces of furniture, which are the same thing in the sense that they are all furniture, and housing is all the same thing, as they are all units of housing, and are all housing.

By "the same thing," do you mean things that do not have other names--as a piece of furniture can also be a sofa, a chair, a table, etc? Then I don't think "sand" counts either, as grains of sand are also zircons, olivines, quartzes, and so on. But perhaps that distinction is too esoteric to count for what you're looking for?
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 5:57 PM on May 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


Furniture and housing isn't made up of individual units of the same thing.

Nor is bacon, despite there being a somewhat standard size and shape people might think of as "a piece" of bacon. If there's no single unit of pork, there's no single unit of bacon; I can chop bacon into any size piece that's appropriate for a recipe and it'll still be pieces of bacon.
posted by hades at 5:59 PM on May 20, 2018 [4 favorites]


Cake?
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:05 PM on May 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


If you do reject both of those, then bamboo is at least bigger than a stalk of wheat or a slice of bacon, when full grown.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 6:05 PM on May 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure this fits, but I can't let go of 'species'.
posted by amtho at 6:07 PM on May 20, 2018


At least in one sense of the word, "humanity" is made up of individual units of human?
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 6:15 PM on May 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


If I understand your criteria, ordnance? In the sense of the artillery pieces themselves, and not the projectiles fired from them, the smallest unit of ordnance is a few hundred pounds.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 6:16 PM on May 20, 2018


Not the largest, but how about some toast with that bacon?
posted by eyeball at 6:19 PM on May 20, 2018


Kutsuwamushi: If you do reject both of those, then bamboo is at least bigger than a stalk of wheat or a slice of bacon, when full grown.

"Furniture" and "housing" are like "trash", mass nouns that can refer to a number of disparate things.

"Bamboo" is a good candidate. Some people use it as a count noun, but it's also a mass noun and some species of bamboo are very large.
posted by Kattullus at 6:20 PM on May 20, 2018


If I understand your criteria, ordnance? In the sense of the artillery pieces themselves, and not the projectiles fired from them, the smallest unit of ordnance is a few hundred pounds.

“Artillery”, “cannon”, and “ordnance” all seem to be possible answers.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:23 PM on May 20, 2018


Universe?
posted by Thorzdad at 6:24 PM on May 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


meaty shoe puppet: If I understand your criteria, ordnance? In the sense of the artillery pieces themselves, and not the projectiles fired from them, the smallest unit of ordnance is a few hundred pounds.

Ordnance and artillery refer to many different, disparate things. If you have one piece of ordnance, it's a field gun, or a howitzer, or a mortar. A single piece of rice is still rice.
posted by Kattullus at 6:30 PM on May 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


A single piece of rice is a grain. Ditto sand.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:53 PM on May 20, 2018 [4 favorites]


Not sure it applies, but I feel like I have to drop “moose” in here.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:53 PM on May 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


But it could be brown rice, wild rice, cooked rice, short rice, sticky rice, prehistoric undomesticated rice, basmati... This feels like a fairly fuzzy/idiosyncratic distinction, as to which differences are big enough to count.
posted by trig at 6:54 PM on May 20, 2018 [4 favorites]


I don't think your bamboo example works for the same reason bacon doesn't, because there's no non-arbitrary unit involved (unlike e.g. rice or sand). A piece of bamboo is an arbitrary unit, and at least for me, it doesn't refer specifically to a single plant.
posted by nomis at 7:03 PM on May 20, 2018


I'm not looking for collective nouns, e.g. rasher of bacon

I don't think that's what rasher means.

You might be thinking of a flitch or side of bacon, an entire side of a pig, salted and cured. OED: flitch: a. The side of an animal, now only of a hog, salted and cured; a ‘side’ of bacon. side: a. Either of two halves into which the body of an animal that has been butchered or prepared for eating is split lengthwise, or a part of one of these; spec. (esp. in side of bacon) a salted and cured cut of pork meat consisting of the loin and belly from either half of the pig.

A rasher of bacon is a single slice. OED: a. A thin slice or strip of bacon, or (less commonly) of other meat, intended to be cooked by grilling, broiling, or frying; a slice of meat cooked in this way.

A lardon of bacon is a small slip or chunk of bacon. OED: One of the pieces of bacon or pork which are inserted in meat in the process of larding.
posted by zamboni at 7:17 PM on May 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


trig: But it could be brown rice, wild rice, cooked rice, short rice, sticky rice, prehistoric undomesticated rice, basmati... This feels like a fairly fuzzy/idiosyncratic distinction, as to which differences are big enough to count.

If I have a bowl of cooked rice and eat every grain of cooked rice except one, I still have cooked rice. The whole mass of cooked rice is made up of individual units of cooked rice

In the furniture example, if I took all the pieces of furniture out of a room, the last piece could be a chair, or a table, or a bed. It doesn't seem very idiosyncratic to me to consider chairs, tables or beds to be different sorts of thing.

zamboni: I don't think that's what rasher means.

From the Merriam-Webster definition of a rasher: "a thin slice of bacon or ham broiled or fried; also : a portion consisting of several such slices". I meant the latter one, but yes, I should've used a different example of collective nouns.
posted by Kattullus at 7:25 PM on May 20, 2018


I think you can do this with a number of plants or crops---"corn" seems to fit your criteria as I understand them; so does "hay" or "soy" or even "grass." Maybe anything that you can describe as "a field of [mass noun]" would be a good candidate? I guess corn is the largest of those (if you're looking at the stalks growing in a field and not at a bunch of kernels on your plate, at least).
posted by Meow Face at 7:26 PM on May 20, 2018


Hail. The corresponding count noun is a hailstone. You can get up to grapefruit size.
posted by Alison at 7:29 PM on May 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


What about "wood" or "lumber"?
posted by Meow Face at 7:33 PM on May 20, 2018


nomis: I don't think your bamboo example works for the same reason bacon doesn't, because there's no non-arbitrary unit involved (unlike e.g. rice or sand). A piece of bamboo is an arbitrary unit, and at least for me, it doesn't refer specifically to a single plant.

The question is whether, if you cut down a copse of dragon bamboo, you have much dragon bamboo or many dragon bamboos. From googling I can see that people use bamboo both as a mass noun and a count noun, though the mass noun version seems more common.
posted by Kattullus at 7:35 PM on May 20, 2018


I don't want to be argumentative but I really think you ought to reconsider furniture. The last piece you take out is still a piece of furniture, just like the last grain of rice is a piece of rice. If you have a bowl of several types of rice -- white, Jasmine, basmati, wild -- all cooked together, it is still 'rice'. There are many different styles, sizes, shapes, and colors of rice just as there are furniture. There doesn't seem to me to be a clear distinction here, which makes this question very hard to answer.
posted by dbx at 7:38 PM on May 20, 2018 [9 favorites]


I want to go back to ice, then, too. If you split a chunk of ice the size of Jamaica into many smaller chunks of ice, you have "much ice", not "many ices". If you have a bag of ice cubes, nobody thinks of that as a bag of many collections of ice crystals, any more than they think of a bag of rice as a bag of many collections of rice cells. (Is half a grain of rice "rice"? How finely can it be divided before it is no longer rice? Is rice flour rice?) They think of it as a bag of a lot of ice, the same way you think of bacon as consisting of strips of bacon, not particles of bacon. If you have a freezer full of ice, it could be full of cubes of ice or ten pound blocks of ice. It's all ice. The size of the pieces depends on context. If I say there's a lot of ice in my soda, I probably mean a lot of small pieces. If I say there's a lot of ice in the North Atlantic, I probably mean huge pieces.
posted by hades at 7:48 PM on May 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


This thread is a hot mess.

The OP asked what mass/uncountable noun is made up of the largest discrete units. For instance, sand (mass noun) is made up of millions of tiny discrete granules of sand. Rice (mass noun) is made up of thousands of discrete grains of rice. Another example could be hair. Hair can be countable (e.g. there are two hairs in my soup) but used as a mass noun (e.g. I don't have much hair) hair is made up of thousands of strands of hair.

In the OP's question, I wouldn't consider bacon to be like hair, rice, or sand. You don't have thousands of discrete bacon bits that make up bacon. Bacon as a mass noun is closer to cake, pie, pineapple, or watermelon, where you take a large piece of something that a person normally couldn't eat an entire unit of and cut it into some arbitrarily smaller piece that's fit for consumption.

Ice isn't made up of discrete units, unless you consider one molecule of H2O to be a discrete unit and if you do consider it, well then most any other liquid would be made up of larger discrete units.

I'm not sure of bamboo. One discrete unit of bamboo is a stalk of bamboo. But then you often encounter things made of bamboo which are smaller than a stalk of bamboo, like a pair of chopsticks. So then how is bamboo different from wood or stone?

My own personal answer would be housing, since I imagine a house to be as uniform and discrete as a grain of rice, but the OP disagrees.

The one noun that I can think of that might be acceptable to the OP that is made of discrete, uniform units is gravel. A piece of gravel is definitely larger than rice or sand. You can take away every piece but one of gravel and still be left with a piece of gravel.
posted by alidarbac at 8:48 PM on May 20, 2018 [6 favorites]


Ice isn't made up of discrete units, unless you consider one molecule of H2O to be a discrete unit

Here are a bucket of ice and a bowl of rice.

I'm really struggling to define terms such that the bowl is full of discrete units of rice, but the bucket is not full of discrete units of ice.
posted by hades at 9:06 PM on May 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


I'm really struggling to define terms such that the bowl is full of discrete units of rice, but the bucket is not full of discrete units of ice.

Seems like OP believes in the significance of essentially uniform individual units, not just discrete units.
posted by praemunire at 9:46 PM on May 20, 2018 [3 favorites]


Lumber?
posted by Night_owl at 10:24 PM on May 20, 2018 [3 favorites]


Paper is not bigger than bamboo, but it is bigger than bacon.

I'm looking for words that fit this pattern:
"The _____ is in the garage. I would like one piece of the _____."
And also, "*There are six _____ in the garage" is grammatically incorrect.

(You can say, "there are six papers in the garage," but that's a different definition of "paper.")

Furniture would indeed work, but nobody knows what "one piece of furniture" looks like; it's a more abstract concept.

Lumber looks promising.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:23 PM on May 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


I think 'wood' fits if 'lumber' fits. So does 'lettuce'?
posted by vacapinta at 7:43 AM on May 21, 2018


If dark matter turns out to be made up of essentially uniform discrete units, it will win.

Until then, keep arguing.
posted by clawsoon at 8:12 AM on May 21, 2018


The smallest unit of ice is an ice crystal.
I don't understand why bacon works and ice doesn't. The smallest unit of bacon is a bacon bit.

Here is a bucket of ice.
That is a bucket of ice cubes. Again, if bacon works even though there are bits or slices of bacon, then ice should work even though there are cubes of ice.
posted by soelo at 10:28 AM on May 21, 2018 [1 favorite]


Full disclosure, I've been chewing on the ideas in this thread a bit over email with Kattullus this morning, so I'm partly importing my takeaways from that conversation about this thread.

So, I think "essentially uniform individual units", as praemunire put it, is a good way to frame the idea.

That's where furniture gets problematic from Kattullus' definition; it is definitely made up of discrete units, but those units don't have a conceptual similarity and fungibility. Different subsets of furniture-as-a-class, or even of any given set of furniture, will look very different from one another, as a bed is not a chair is not a table. Nor is a chair a representative, fungible unit of chair-and-table-and-bed.

Whereas ultimately every grain of rice may be different when you look very close, but conceptually we don't view rice as heterogeneous. Certainly not rice within a given variety; if you pluck one grain of white rice from a bowl of white rice, it will seem no different than pulling any other grain of rice from that bowl.

Likewise, from a package of bacon, you retrieve a single strip, or another single strip, and the result is the same: a slice of bacon, as like the others as any other would be.

Pork fried rice, though, crosses into heterogeneity: pull one thing out of the bowl, and it might be a grain of rice, or it might be a bit of pork.

So I think the kind of stuff K is after is that stuff where each unit referred to with the mass noun in practice is more or less equally and homogeneously representative of every other unit. A grain of sand is sufficiently representative of all grains of sand that any one can stand in for another at a reasonable conceptual level. A grain or rice, a slice of bacon.

And with bacon, and rice, there's the issue of varieties and the reality that we tend to think in subsets sometimes when using a mass noun that can apply more widely to the superset as well. So white rice is not brown rice is not black rice, "rice" as an overarching concept can refer to what when mixed together would be a to some extent heterogenous mixture. Same for thin sliced bacon, thick pepper bacon, bacon ends: a group of homogeneous subsets of an ultimately heterogeneous superset. But in practice when I talk about white rice as rice, or a bowl of white rice as rice, it's understood that I'm just talking about that subset of rice. When I talk about getting some bacon from the fridge, it's safe to think (if I am not a butcher or a bacon hoarder) that I just mean e.g. the pack of sliced bacon we have, not the broader concept of bacon-in-all-its-varieties.

So there's the careful, completionist categorization and taxonomy of things, where variety and the heterogeneity of supersets gets tricky, but I think basically K is asking about more practical, language-as-it-is-casually used sets. Rice as in what we're talking about when we casually refer to rice, not rice as in the totality of rice as a known entity.

Ice is tricky here; I'm inclined to agree that a bowl of ice cubes is an essentially uniform, fungible set of units that are acceptably co-representative of each other. So those ice cubes feel like a fit. The question is: are ice cubes the same sort of category as bacon or rice, where it's a subset of "ice" with sufficient identity of its own to count as a set even though "ice" can cover much broader territory? My gut says yes; go get some ice from the freezer, go get some ice from the store, will you please, and if you come back with an iceberg or a handful of frozen water molecules I am going to have serious questions about your decision-making. But then, ice cubes aren't very big, so that hasn't gotten us anywhere. And icebergs are very large indeed but don't really exists as fungible units of "ice" in any kind of common usage I'm aware of.

I like bamboo, and not just because it's the best answer I'd come up with independently before reading the thread. One stalk of bamboo to another will certainly vary (especially as it takes time to grow from a shoot to maturity), but as a collection stalks of a given variety of bamboo still feel fungible and co-representative to me.
posted by cortex at 11:58 AM on May 21, 2018 [1 favorite]


drywall?
posted by vacapinta at 12:25 PM on May 21, 2018 [3 favorites]


if I am not a butcher or a bacon hoarder

Or someone who has only bought bacon from the farmers market for the last fifteen years, and is as likely to buy a solid chunk as pre-sliced, but I take the point that this is not the most common understanding of bacon.

icebergs are very large indeed but don't really exists as fungible units of "ice" in any kind of common usage I'm aware of

I'd argue that if you're talking about sea ice, you're using "ice" in a sense where fungible units can be pretty damn big. But if the question is about language-as-it-is-casually-used, then that's out, because your average guy on the street doesn't casually talk about sea ice. Your average guy on the street probably doesn't think of bamboo as something that grows 120 feet high and a foot in diameter, either, though.

If we're going with a definition which requires someone picked off the street at random to have in mind a particular size of a thing which comes in many sizes, I like drywall. Or plywood.
posted by hades at 1:04 PM on May 21, 2018 [1 favorite]


space
posted by bile and syntax at 2:28 PM on May 21, 2018


How willing are you to accept technical/jargon uses, and multi-word phrases? For example, in a stream restoration design, I can call for an arbitrary amount of "20-lb rock". In this usage, I think "20-lb rock" is used as a mass noun, with the individual units being fungible. The individual units may be "rocks" and someone unfamiliar with landscaping might say I have "1,000 lbs of rocks", but a landscaper would totally understand if I asked for "2,000 lbs of 20-lb rock". From your prior responses, I think you might reject this because it could also be described as "100 20-lb rocks". However, I think that is unfair, because a pound of rice could also be described as "20,000 grains of rice". Whether anyone would do so is based on context. A landscaper would think it sounds weird to ask for 1,000 rocks, just as a cook would think it sounds weird to ask for 1,000 grains of rice.
posted by agentofselection at 2:43 PM on May 21, 2018 [2 favorites]


I think bamboo is probably the best answer. Individual stalks of bamboo can be huge, and would be referred to simply as "bamboo" in speech.

But the 20-lb rock example is interesting. My main problem is that it probably fits in the category of "furniture" and "trash", something which can refer to many disparate things. I would be more comfortable with it if it was, say, "2000 lbs of 20-lb granite" (or basalt or feldspar).

Humanity was a good candidate, but I'm not convinced it's a mass noun. The sentence "here is some humanity" sounds off to me while "our species will split into many humanities" doesn't.

As for something like dark matter, which we don't know what is, exactly, that'll have to wait until we know more. It's closer to a concept or an idea than a thoroughly understood fact. And if we venture into the realm of concepts, we could just say "the trinity" which is an infinitely large substance made up of three infinitely large grains, so to speak.

So unless someone thinks of anything else, "bamboo" is the mass noun whose individual units are the largest.
posted by Kattullus at 5:11 PM on May 21, 2018


This land is your land, and this land is my land
From the California to the New York Island,
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters,
This land was made for you and me.


I do not see how land can fail. Here is some land. Here is some more land. Here is some less land. Here is all the land. There can be many types of land, sure, but they're all land in the same way rice is all rice and ice is all ice and bamboo is all bamboo, aren't they?
posted by cgc373 at 7:21 PM on May 21, 2018


what about paper, when it's on gigantic newsprint rolls? A piece of letter or A4 paper isn't bigger than a stalk of bamboo, but a roll of paper definitely is. And you can definitely say, "Hey, the press is running out, get some paper over here!"
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:04 PM on May 21, 2018 [1 favorite]


I'd perhaps revisit "cattle", at least as it's used by farmers, ranchers, and others who have reason to use it precisely. If you want to count them, you refer to "six head of cattle", like you refer to "six grains of rice". There's no other proper singular form. It's only when you want to specify their sex and breeding condition that you say heifer, cow, steer, bull, or calf, and each of those words has its own plural.

The one difference from "grains of rice" is that you'd never say "heads of cattle". It's always "head of cattle".

Or it's "head of beef", if you're talking specifically about beef cattle.

Either way, don't go calling it a "herd of cows" unless you know that it's only cows: Mature females who have borne more than one calf.

But... maybe not. You'd say "rice is...", but you wouldn't say "cattle is...". I guess it's a plural after all.
posted by clawsoon at 3:53 AM on May 22, 2018


One thing that many of the "mass nouns" have in common is that they're commodities. Bacon, drywall, sand, rice, wheat, 20-lb rock, lumber. Maybe some end-user wants to count them out one-by-one, but the industrial concern at the centre of processing them (or the Sumerian temple complex at the centre of distributing them) wants to know how many million tons per year.

For some commodities, especially those made from fibres, the state of maximum per-unit uniformity occurs when they're bales, which can be quite large: A bale of cotton, a bale of paper, a bale of hay. A piece of paper would be to a bale of paper what a speck of rice flour dust would be to a grain of rice; it's what happens when the uniform commodity unit is processed into smaller pieces.
posted by clawsoon at 3:53 AM on May 22, 2018


Sky.

Space (the kind that is above the sky).
posted by googly at 7:24 AM on May 22, 2018


Sky, land, and ice don't have discrete units. They are mass concepts that can be broken or considered as pieces of any size; there is no difference between "a piece of land" and "two pieces of land next to each other." There is no "half a piece of land."

I think I understand the goal concept, but wow is it hard to define.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:42 AM on May 22, 2018 [1 favorite]


I think it's hard to define because it isn't being defined consistently. Bacon and bamboo don't have uniform discrete units, either, but those are apparently valid answers.
posted by hades at 2:16 PM on May 22, 2018 [1 favorite]


Yes, but specific kinds of bacon and bamboo have relatively uniform, discrete units. If you have a heap of slab bacon, each unit of slab bacon looks basically the same. If you have a pile of common bamboo, each stalk of common bamboo looks the same.
posted by Kattullus at 3:13 PM on May 22, 2018


As for cattle, it's not a mass noun, but a plural noun (i.e. you can say "many cattle") without a corresponding singular noun.

A bale of hay is indeed some hay, but for the purposes of referring to it as "some hay" it's no different from the same amount of hay in a pile. In which case the discrete unit is the stalk of hay.

Paper is a plausible answer, though. I've spent some time around printing presses and I feel that most of the time people talk about rolls when directly referring to the rolls of paper ("the roof is leaking, move these rolls to the other warehouse"), rather than paper in a more abstract sense ("they've expanded the print run, we need more paper"). But it's certainly plausible.
posted by Kattullus at 3:37 PM on May 22, 2018


Kattullus: the discrete unit is the stalk of hay.

Nitpick: I think you might be thinking about straw bales, not hay bales. Hay includes a lot more than just stalks.
posted by clawsoon at 4:59 PM on May 22, 2018 [1 favorite]


I got wondering about zucchini, and came across this interesting discussion:
This vegetable (actually an immature fruit), borrowed from Italy along with its name, has, in its native Italian language, both a feminine form ( zucchina, with the plural zucchine) and a masculine form ( zucchino, with the plural zucchini). It is the latter plural that has made it into English. And as with other Italian foods that enrich our vocabulary along with our diets, we have imported a plural form—only to treat it as a singular noun. Spaghetti, ravioli, tortellini, and fettuccini grace not only our dinner tables but our dictionaries, which show that English speakers normally treat these terms as mass (that is, uncountable) nouns rather than as plurals. We say, “This spaghetti is delicious” or “I'd like some fettuccini,” since we are not referring to individual pieces but to a cooked or cookable dish of pasta. Jokingly, we occasionally acknowledge Italian grammar, as by claiming to pick up one thin “spaghetto” or a puffy “raviolo.” Zucchini, however, is different. Because of the vegetable's size, it is a count noun when whole; you can bring home six zucchini or zucchinis from the supermarket. But when it is sliced, cooked, and served, you once again have a dish of food that is talked about as a mass noun.
posted by clawsoon at 5:09 PM on May 22, 2018 [2 favorites]


If you have a pile of common bamboo, each stalk of common bamboo looks the same.

Ok, one last defense of ice, and then I'll drop it. But I have in my yard right now a bunch of common bamboo, and it is in pieces which are as similar to each other as chunks of sea ice are to each other in any random sample. Which is to say, extremely variable. There is a trellis made of bamboo canes which are indeed pretty uniform at around one inch in diameter and eight feet in length. There is also a clump of live bamboo with stalks between a couple inches and a few feet high. There is a small pile of structural bamboo cutoffs, most of which are about three inches in diameter and one to three feet long. There are probably some pieces of bamboo flooring around here somewhere (again, uniform-ish among themselves, but nothing like the uniform pieces of the trellis).

If bamboo and bacon satisfy the requirements because, despite not being inherently uniform in all contexts, a context exist in which they are uniform, I still don't see why ice fails. Sea ice exists in a context where you are very unlikely to be distinguishing among individual pieces (except, I guess, "that piece with the polar bear on it") and are likely to only be referring to it as a mass noun ("the sea surface is 30% ice within these bounds").

If "a pile of bamboo which has been selected for uniformity" is the context that makes bamboo work, I think "a patch of sea ice where nobody cares about the difference between any two chunks" ought to qualify ice. But it's your question and definition, so I'll drop it.
posted by hades at 5:59 PM on May 22, 2018


If bacon counts, with a slab of bacon as the unit, does beef count, with a side of beef as the unit?

And what do you mean by "biggest"? Mass, volume, area, or length?

But the 20-lb rock example is interesting. My main problem is that it probably fits in the category of "furniture" and "trash", something which can refer to many disparate things. I would be more comfortable with it if it was, say, "2000 lbs of 20-lb granite" (or basalt or feldspar).

As Kutsuwamushi pointed out, sand has the same problem. (Precisely the same problem, as it happens.)

You're willing to forgive the same problem with rice and bamboo, which also come in many different varieties (as has been pointed out a bunch of times). You assume that a bundle of bamboo is going to be bamboo of the same variety, while you assume that a load of 20-lb rock is going to be rock of different varieties. Question: What criteria are you using to differentiate between things-with-different-varieties that you're willing to imagine sorted into their varieties and things-with-different-varieties that you aren't willing to imagine sorted?

One more which I think might fit:

Pig iron. It exists as uniform oblong blocks. It doesn't become pig iron until it is poured into its characteristic shape. Once you start molding and cutting it into other iron goods, it stops being pig iron. While it's pig iron, I think it might fit your criteria.

It's not the biggest, though.

Close-but-not-quite:

Railway track, rolling stock, cinder block, spooled rope or cable.
posted by clawsoon at 3:21 AM on May 23, 2018 [2 favorites]


Pig iron is a good one! That definitely goes on the list. As far as Google tells me, pig iron can be up to a hundred pounds in weight. I'm having a hard time finding out what a single dragon bamboo plant weighs, but I assume that a 100 foot plus plant probably weighs considerably more than a hundred pounds.

As for track, stock, block, rope and cable, none of these words are mass nouns.

Rock is borderline, and I can see the argument for including it, but it comes down to language, essentially. Besides the case that I noted above, the other problem is that if you have two 20 pound rocks, people will refer to them as "rocks", i.e. the word stops being used as a mass noun and becomes a count noun. If you have two grains of rice, people refer to them as "rice", i.e. it never stops being a mass noun. Same goes for bacon, bamboo and indeed iron.

Ice is a tricker subject. This may be because I'm from a sub-arctic part of the world, but it's hard for me to think of ice as anything else than highly mutable. It's not in the same conceptual category as a pile of slab bacon, where there are clear boundaries and discrete units. Were I from an area closer to the poles, or further away, I might have a different perspective, but in my part of the world ice is constantly freezing and melting and refreezing. So for me it's closer to the liquid category than the category of mass nouns I'm asking about.
posted by Kattullus at 9:37 AM on May 23, 2018


"Rolling stock" isn't a mass noun? In what way? "A yard full of rolling stock" sounds right to me, while "six rolling stock(s)" does not. Each roughly-uniform car in a train is an individual unit of rolling stock. (It's less uniform once you apply it outside the rail context, admittedly. But no less uniform than bamboo.)
posted by hades at 9:49 AM on May 23, 2018 [1 favorite]


That's a good point. However, a single unit of rolling stock isn't referred to as rolling stock, but as a carriage or locomotive, and so on.
posted by Kattullus at 9:55 AM on May 23, 2018


Maybe "rail"? One unit is called a rail; a bunch of units put end-to-end is called a rail.
posted by clawsoon at 10:06 AM on May 23, 2018


(I guess not... you don't call it "a rice". Nevermind.)
posted by clawsoon at 10:06 AM on May 23, 2018


I'm not sure what your purpose is here, but it seems like if you're trying to find something really big that works this way, for some reason, then depending on why you want to find something really big that works that way: The answer will be different in other languages.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 10:33 AM on May 23, 2018


I'm having a hard time finding out what a single dragon bamboo plant weighs

A rough calculation of the maximum, based on this and this:

35 meters * ((15 centimeters)^2 - (12.5 centimeters)^2) * pi * (0.6 grams per cubic centimeter) = 453.567439 kilograms

So let's say 1000 lbs for the very largest. I'd revisit timber/lumber, if you're intent on accepting bamboo. "Pine" as used by a buyer of it, let's say, since the trees are more uniform than many hardwood species.

"I'd like to buy pine." - Works.
"I'd like to buy many pine." - Doesn't work.
"The pine is in the forest. I would like one pine tree." - Works.
"There are six pines in the forest." - Doesn't work.

Seems to work as well as bamboo, and would be heavier.
posted by clawsoon at 10:38 AM on May 23, 2018


Some brainstorming ideas - most of these don't quite fit but might help in thinking of others or narrowing down what you want -

-riprap
Large rocks used for erosion control at stream or road edges. Riprap comes in a few standardized sizes, the largest are boulders a meter across and thousands of pounds. It's basically giant-size gravel.

-driftwood
Not uniform size, but it does pass the "if you took away all but one piece, you'd still have a piece of driftwood" test.

-baleen
It comes in big sheets.

-rebar?
Maybe any kind of construction material that comes in standardized units? (drywall is one example given above, rail too) This might be a good heuristic to get big/massy things that are spoken of in mass-noun terms, imagine a contractor ordering supplies in quantity, for a big civil engineering project.

-traffic?
Maybe other infrastructural/control-system categories like cargo, baggage, freight, inventory, etc. This probably violates the 'uniform units' criterion, but I think there are possibilities in this direction; there are contexts where they'd be treated as composed of interchangeable units (e.g. think of how an air traffic control screen, or a control system at a shipping warehouse might track airplanes or large shipping crates).

-scree
Really scree is made of smaller pieces, but putting it here as a placeholder because I think geology is going to be another domain to check for these terms - big objects that are thought of in volume.

-mycelium
Not sure about the usage here - it's basically the underground part of mushrooms, and can grow really big (supposedly one in the northwest US is many many acres and the largest living thing). It seems to be spoken of with a mass noun in some contexts. I was trying to think of the biggest biological things that might fit.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:43 AM on May 23, 2018 [1 favorite]


a single unit of rolling stock isn't referred to as rolling stock

"Can I have some rice?" *points at single grain* "I only have this rice."
vs
"Can I have some rice?" *points at single grain* "I only have this grain."

"Can I have some bacon?" *hoards last piece* "I only have this bacon."
vs
"Can I have some bacon?" *hoards last piece* "I only have this rasher."

"I'd like to buy all your bamboo." *points at last stalk* "I only have this bamboo."
vs
"I'd like to buy all your bamboo." *points at last stalk* "I only have this cane."

If the requirement is that a single unit of the thing only ever be called by its mass noun, I don't think anything qualifies. If I only have one boxcar available, I could legitimately say "I am low on rolling stock" as easily as "I only have one boxcar". Noodle/strand, stalk/head, shoot/cane/pole, piece/rasher, sheet/roll -- I think all of your examples and accepted answers have distinct names for single units.
posted by hades at 12:48 PM on May 23, 2018


clawsoon: "There are six pines in the forest." - Doesn't work.

A pine, in the sense of a pine tree, is a count noun. So "there are six pines in the forest" is perfectly cromulent. However, pine can be a mass noun in the sense of the building material, so that would work (I'm assuming that people would talk about the last plank of pine as simply "pine").

LobsterMitten: Some brainstorming ideas - most of these don't quite fit but might help in thinking of others or narrowing down what you want -

Those are good examples. I had missed "drywall" above. I was a bit confused by that one because I've definitely heard it used as a count noun, but it seems like both exist. I'm not sure of the use cases for count vs. mass noun, whether a unit in a stack of drywall will be referred to as "a drywall" or not. Usage may differ by regions.

Driftwood and baleen are very good examples. I think that people would consistently refer to driftwood as driftwood. Though people who work with driftwood know the names of the various kinds of tree (apparently there used to be special terminology for driftwood trees, but I can't readily find it online) but it makes sense to me that people in general would just refer to driftwood as driftwood.

I'll admit to never having come across the word riprap, but it seems, like scree, to refer to the agglomeration, and not the units. Same with traffic. Mycelium has a plural form. Rebar is a mass noun only when used for a grid of them, but becomes a count noun when referring to invidual pieces.

hades: If the requirement is that a single unit of the thing only ever be called by its mass noun, I don't think anything qualifies.

The requirement isn't that something is only ever referred to by a mass noun, but that the mass noun is used for single units of the thing. That's why bacon works and not rock. Bacon is always a mass noun, whether it's a one, two, three or a hundred units of bacon. Rock, on the other hand, is only a mass noun once a pile is big enough. When it's just a few rocks, it's a count noun.
posted by Kattullus at 5:19 PM on May 23, 2018


"Rebar is a mass noun only when used for a grid of them, but becomes a count noun when referring to invidual pieces."

I'm not sure of that -- my dad actually works for a company that manufactures rebar, and I have literally never heart it used as a count noun. It's all just rebar. You can have a piece of rebar, a palette of rebar, a barge of rebar -- but you would never have one rebar, two rebars, three rebars. And maybe another one for your list: most of what they make is actually not reBAR, but wire (or reinforced wire), and it comes in bars, spools, mesh sheets, mesh spools, cages, and I'm sure some other forms I'm forgetting. The factory floor guys call it all "wire," there's not one wire or six wires, it's just "wire."

(The reinforced wire is mostly called rebar once it gets to the construction site, though.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:57 PM on May 23, 2018 [3 favorites]


I'm not sure of the use cases for count vs. mass noun, whether a unit in a stack of drywall will be referred to as "a drywall" or not. Usage may differ by regions.

In my limited personal experience, NW US, it seems like a good fit usage-wise; if we're putting up drywall, we need to make sure we have some drywall. The drywall is over there. Grab some drywall off the stack. How much? Two sheets. We need two sheets of drywall. We don't have that much, look at the stack, look at the actual drywall, man. It's obvious that we're almost out of drywall.
posted by cortex at 6:08 PM on May 23, 2018 [2 favorites]


The only place I have ever seen "a drywall" used to mean "a single sheet of drywall" was from a non-native speaker, although I'm also in the NW US. I can't find any examples of it used that way on google, though. Google is showing me results for "drywalls" in the sense of distinguishing between different formulations of the material, but that's a different sense than "a countable number of sheets of drywall". If there's a regional usage where a sheet would be called "a drywall" I'd love to know where it is. Maybe the same places "needs washed" is an accepted construction?
posted by hades at 9:20 PM on May 23, 2018 [1 favorite]


I'm using plasterboard (which I'm pretty sure is what you call drywall) right now.

One sheet is "plasterboard"
Twenty Sheets are "plasterboard"
Same for Plywood.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 2:59 PM on June 4, 2018 [1 favorite]


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