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Most dictionaries don't say whether a noun is count vs. mass. Short of asking a fluent English speaker, where can you get this kind of information?

I've tried asking various other ESL/EFL people I know this same question, and also tried googling it, but to no avail.

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3 Answers 3

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Most English dictionaries used and published in the United States don't include that information, just as they don't provide IPA-based phonemic transcription. However, dictionaries published in the UK and elsewhere sometimes do, especially dictionaries for English learners.

One American online exception is Merriam-Webster's Learner's Dictionary, which dutifully reports that pea and bean are both [count], while rice and sand are both [noncount].

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"sands" in Google Books: "About 15,400,000 results" incl. Sands, powders, and grains: an introduction to the physics of granular materials; Dynamics of marine sands: a manual for practical applications; and of course, "shifting sands" Shifting Sands: A Guidebook for Crossing the Deserts of Change; –  Kris Dec 18 '12 at 12:36
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This is a result of the well-established countification process for mass nouns. Why waste a perfectly good plural suffix when it can be used to signal something else, like diversity of type (15 inks used in this drawing) or vastness of extent (sands of the Sahara)? There is also a massification for count nouns, referring to undifferentiated physical or spiritual phenomena (a lot of car for the money), etc. –  John Lawler Dec 18 '12 at 16:40

Beware broad-brush approaches, even if you find a dictionary offering the count - uncount classification. Some - perhaps many - nouns are non-count in some senses and count in others. Coffee is a good example - its basic sense is uncount:

Coffee is a drink made by infusing the ground beans of Coffea arabica etc.

Too much coffee can be bad for you.

However, different products will be count:

Coffees produced using a higher proportion of robusta beans in the blend tend to be bitter and have less flavour but better body than those with a higher proportion of arabica beans.

And ellipsis produces another count-noun polyseme:

Two coffees, please.

(ie two cups / mugs of coffee)

Rice is count when different strains are meant, and sand when different sorts are being mentioned. (There is a poetic use of sands also.) Even furnitures is allowed in certain situations.

There are also grey areas - you'd probably ask for less peas rather than fewer peas (especially if they were mushy) on your plate. Non-count doesn't always mean that counting would be impossible - confetti is treated as a singular non-count noun. The difficulty ensuing when one tries to use algae in both count and non-count senses has recently been addressed in a different thread.

A good place to start looking is http://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/en/english-grammar/nouns/common-problems-countuncount-nouns .

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Note that I'm not asking for general approaches to distinguishing the two (I'm a native English speaker), but looking for a reference that learners can use. –  Joe Dec 17 '12 at 21:58
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The Collins Cobuild English Dictionary for Advanced Learners (certainly my copy - Edition 3, 2001) differentiates nouns as you require. It also tries to parse common phrases. It uses the term 'mass noun' for 'nouns which are normally uncount, but [behave in count fashion] when varieties are being referenced' - such as wine in I like wine / I like French wines. –  Edwin Ashworth Dec 17 '12 at 22:43
    
I don't think I've heard countable rice, but it should follow spice. "In a Japanese supermarket, you can find numerous rices." –  Kaz Dec 18 '12 at 1:44
    
If you can find a general set of rules, then learners can use that, instead of relying on a reference. There is a general semantic principle at play; I don't think this is a case of English speakers memorizing numerous exceptions. –  Kaz Dec 18 '12 at 1:48
    
@EdwinAshworth, your comment is a great answer to my question. –  Joe Dec 18 '12 at 4:14

You should try Wiktionary. It lists the plural, or indicates that the noun is uncountable. For example, rice is listed as uncountable, and bean has the plural listed as beans.

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After five beers, beer looks uncountable. Oops! And it can be made from lots of barleys, not just one variety of barley, just like sake can be made from various rices. –  Kaz Dec 18 '12 at 1:46
    
@Kaz, true, but I call shenanigans. –  Joe Dec 18 '12 at 4:14

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