mass noun (noncount noun)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

world's largest bowl of spaghetti
The word spaghetti is an example of a mass noun (or noncount noun). (Robert Benson/Getty Images)

A mass noun is a noun (such as advice, bread, knowledge, luck, and work) that names things that in English cannot usually be counted.

A mass noun (also known as a noncount noun) is generally used only in the singular. Many abstract nouns are uncountable, but not all uncountable nouns are abstract. Contrast with count noun.

Examples and Observations

  • "Fun does not have a size."
    (Bart Simpson in The Simpsons, 2001)
  • "Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it."
    (Albert Einstein)
  • "Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back."
    (Eugene O'Neill)
  • "After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music."
    (Aldous Huxley)
  • "I seek constantly to improve my manners and graces, for they are the sugar to which all are attracted."
    (Og Mandino)

Double Duty: Count Nouns and Mass Nouns

"Some nouns can serve as both count and mass nouns. The noun war is an example. In War is ghastly, war is a mass noun, whereas in The wars between Rome and Carthage were ruinous, war is used as a count noun." (James R. Hurford, Grammar: A Student's Guide. Cambridge University Press, 1994)

Unusual Plurals

"English nouns denoting things that cannot be counted, such as wine, coffee, and intelligence, do not easily form plurals in their central senses. Some of them, however, can be pluralized when they have transferred senses, such as varieties (Rhone wines), measures (four coffees), or embodiments (alien intelligences).

You should not overuse such unusual plurals, however, since they can easily become pretentious, as they do in those silly signs announcing ice creams and hair stylings." (R.L. Trask, Mind the Gaffe! Harper, 2006)

Distinctions Between Count Nouns and Mass Nouns

"Is there a conceptual basis to the grammatical distinction between count nouns and mass nouns?

One answer is that this grammatical distinction is, to a very large degree, semantically opaque and unprincipled . . .. In general, people learn which nouns are typically used as count nouns and which are typically used as mass nouns without any understanding of why these differences in syntax occur. Another answer is that the grammatical distinction between count and mass nouns is to a very large degree conceptually based. That is, when speakers use count nouns to refer to things they implicitly have something in mind that they are trying to communicate that is common across all uses of count nouns. A similar view applies to the use of mass nouns. A third answer, and the one that I propose, is that the count-mass noun distinction is to a very large degree conceptually based, but there are exceptions. Some exceptions do not seem to have a clear explanation, but others may occur because of competing communicative functions of language." (Edward J. Wisniewski, "On Using Count Nouns, Mass Nouns, and Pluralia Tantum: What Counts?" Kinds, Things, and Stuff: Mass Terms and Generics. Oxford University Press, 2010)

The Lighter Side of Mass Nouns

"'Hi there,' I say. 'Let me ask you a question.' She giggles and nods.

'How would you find a needle in a haystack?'

"The first-grader pauses, pensive, tugging on the green yarn around her neck. She's really thinking this over. Tiny gears are turning; she's twisting her fingers together, pondering. It's cute. Finally, she looks up and says gravely, 'I would ask the hays to find it.' Then she makes a quiet banshee whine and bounces away on one foot. . . .

"It's so simple. Of course, of course. The first-grader is right. It's easy to find a needle in a haystack! Ask the hays to find it!"
(Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012)

Also Known As: noncount noun, uncountable noun