Sunday, October 31, 2004

Count me in

I really enjoyed this column from Ruth Walker at the Verbal Energy blog. She covers mass nouns vs. countable nouns and how she is noticing a trend of mass nouns morphing into countable nouns.

What's the difference? You use them "to distinguish between 'stuff' and 'things,' she says.
"Stuff" is a mass noun. You may have more or less stuff, but there isn't a plural, as there is with "thing": If you have more than one thing you have "things." Since "things" can be individually counted, "thing" is a count noun.
But she gives several examples of words in the middle. E-mail is a good example. Many would say that it must follow the mass noun mail from which it is derived. But you'll regularly hear people saying they have 200 e-mails to go through after their vacation.

Most of us after happening across some cash would say we had more money. For some reason, politicians and businessmen tend to have more monies. (Walker's theory is that the plural makes it sound more abundant.)

She even brings up the -- avert your eyes, Bill -- "10 items or fewer" debate.
The mass vs. count distinction matters in terms of articles ("an e-mail" or not), and the often prickly distinction between "less" and "fewer." "Less" goes with mass nouns, "fewer" with count nouns. That's why grammar vigilantes like to see signs that say "10 Items or Fewer," rather than "10 Items or Less," at the checkout lanes of the supermarket. (The rest of us just want to know the people ahead of us have no more than 10 items.)
There are plenty more examples. And they remind me of a lament I once read on a grammar-geek message board. The writer was begging dictionaries to include a citation on whether nouns were countable. Before that, I'd never considered how difficult it would be to determine which was which.


At 1:16 PM, November 01, 2004, Blogger Bill said...

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At 1:17 PM, November 01, 2004, Blogger Bill said...

Ruth seems to be poking fun at those who insist on "10 items or fewer" for making a big deal about the matter, even if she might seem to agree with them.

I still have yet to see someone address the fact that "10 items or less" is quite different from the clearly flawed "10 or less items." And how often have you heard of an essay of a certain number of words "or fewer"?

(Not that I endorse bowing to the weight of popular usage or anything, but note this margin compared with this one. As with the sports people's misguided use of "RBI" as a plural despite such parallel examples as "POWs," I think this could be an example of focused pedantry that misses a bigger picture.)

At 11:00 PM, November 04, 2004, Blogger Nicole said...

Self-deprecating humor is a good trait when you realize you're being a pedant. Because Walker was poking fun does not mean she doesn't believe.

I still don't understand why "10 items or fewer" is different from "10 or fewer items." We're still dealing with countable nouns. Now, if you really said "10 items or less than that," it would be a different; that is not countable like items is.

To say that the "than that" is understood seems to me a back-formation of an explanation -- to be conversational even when that's not grammatical.

I think the better (but still not good) argument is the popular-usage one. At some point, when few people follow the "less than vs. fewer" rule anymore, some copy editors will still be wailing for its employment. But, clearly, we're just not there yet.


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