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I have a two part question, the second depending on the answer of the first. I don't know if that is frowned upon, but I'm not sure how else to ask.

Foil is an uncountable noun so it is not pluralized, but is it correct to use the plural when referring to several kinds of foils? Just like fish is plural but some people refer to several species of fish as fishes?

For example,

That company makes aluminum foils

Meaning, they make many kinds of foils out of aluminum

If this is OK, then why is

"organic and inorganic matters"

wrong but

"organic and inorganic matter"

right?

There are several kinds of matter being referred to. It seems to be following the same rule.

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I think the answer is that some non-count nouns can be counted when there are different types or specific instances of the stuff involved; but matter is so general it can never be counted. See english.stackexchange.com/questions/92114/… –  Andrew Leach Dec 12 '12 at 9:23
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2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Many nouns which are normally uncountable are potentially countable in certain contexts. It’s a matter not so much of grammar as of the nature of the object to which the noun refers. There can clearly be different kinds of foil, and that makes it possible to speak of foils. Matter is a concept that that lends itself less well to pluralisation, but the Corpus of Contemporary American English has this record:

A 1992 study estimated that CSOs release between four and fourteen billion pounds of solids and organic matters on a yearly basis nationwide.

Organic and inorganic matters might in some contexts be an unwise formulation, because it could be taken to mean ‘organic and inorganic topics’.

David Crystal comments on the pluralisation of uncountable nouns in the latest post on his blog.

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I think linguistics does play a part. Matter(s) and foil(s) are of course count in other polysemes / homonyms: meddling in matters far too dangerous to tackle / 3 foils and 2 sabres. I think that this may ease the 'countablisation' of the polyseme / homonym not originally count. Usage is idiosyncratic too - 'I'll have a milkshake' but usually 'a glass of milk / water'. Coal / coals is covered at: wordwizard.com/phpbb3/… . –  Edwin Ashworth Dec 12 '12 at 11:07
    
I see how the context makes the difference as to whether a noun in countable or not, but "organic matters" still sounds wrong to me... Thanks for the info. –  By137 Dec 17 '12 at 4:53
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If the company is producing aluminium foils of different dimensions, their produce is not single hence it is right to say FOILS, as one foil is different from the other.

The word "matter" can be referred to in several contexts such as "Substance", "Tpoic" etc. In the context of "substance", it is the common material using which everything in this world is created. There is no "This matter" and "That matter". hence it is both singular and plural. In this context, it is wrong to say "matters". In the context of "Topic", one topic is different from another. hence it is right to say TOPICS.

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