Mass confusion you can count on

When I as an editor have to talk with people about what's wrong with their prose, I often have to trot out some very scary terminology, such as "dangling participle," "subordinating conjunction," or "faulty parallelism."

It's sometimes enough to prompt me to feel a twinge of envy for people laboring in fields where the tools have simpler names, like "rake," "hoe," "shovel," or even "spade." It's always great to be able to call a spade a spade.

So I was thrilled a few years ago to discover that fellow wordsmiths use the simple straightforward terms "mass noun" and "count noun" to distinguish between, well - to distinguish between "stuff" and "things." "Stuff" is a mass noun. You may have more or less stuff, but there's no 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.

The mass vs. count distinction is less clear for newer terms whose usage is somewhat in flux. You wouldn't say "a stuff," but you're likely to say "an e-mail," even though some would insist that "e-mail" is a mass noun and that the correct way to refer to a single item within this mass is as "an e-mail message." After all, the traditionalists say, you get "mail" consisting of individual "letters"; you wouldn't say, "I got a mail from him today." But I'm not sure time is on their side.

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 that the people ahead of us have no more than 10 items.)

Some nouns are both mass and count. Hair, for instance: He has less hair than he used to have, but he still has a few stray hairs on his coat. "Money" is a mass noun that sometimes turns into a count noun, with a plural "monies," which seems to be favored by politicians trying to demonstrate how much they have brought to their constituents.

"Spam," in the computer sense - unwanted e-mail, or (to be really formal) unwanted e-mail messages - seems to be acquiring a plural form, in some quarters at least.

I'm seeing a trend from mass to count. I think it reflects, in part, the commoditization of mass (communal) goods into items packaged and sold individually. "Do you want more coffee?" one spouse, carafe in hand, asks the other in the kitchen. Coffee is a mass noun in that context. But at the deli, it becomes a count noun: "I need two coffees, an orange juice, and a hot chocolate," says the desk jockey provisioning his colleagues during the morning break. Each of those individual items will, of course, have a price.

There's another important example of a noun morphing - definitively - from "mass" to "count," and that's "chad," the little bits of pasteboard liberated when a punch card is punched.

Anyone whose knowledge of "chad" predated the 2000 presidential election knows that it used to be "stuff," the dandruff of the early computer era. Not until the Bush vs. Gore race in Florida did the noun come back into wide use, acquiring a plural along the way. No, they weren't actually counting chads, but the state of the bit of chad on each punch-card ballot was a factor in how the ballot would be tabulated. We could say that at a time of mass confusion, "chad" became a "count" noun in the fullest sense of the word.

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