1

I'd like to understand the logic behind uncountable nouns, such as "water", "meat" and others, specially "bread", for example.

I don't understand why can't we count them, since there are different kinds of water (e.g.: still, tap, sparkling, etc.), meat (e.g: beef, pork, etc.) and bread (baguette, bun, etc.).

Sorry if my question seems silly, but I'm not a native speaker.

  • I like the example "Algebra", since it's actually both. "You need more algebra to understand Lie groups." "Perhaps one of the Banach algebras will prove useful." – imallett Oct 16 '14 at 3:42
  • Keep in mind that these words tend to be so old that the rules for their use go way back, from a wide range of source languages. (And the words can be "countable" in some circumstances. Eg, "There were a dozen different meats in the buffet.") – Hot Licks Oct 16 '14 at 15:31
6

As Gregory Bateson put it in "Every Schoolboy Knows",

The division of the perceived universe into parts and wholes
is convenient, and may be necessary, but
no necessity determines how it shall be done.

It is tricky, and it's not ideal, but there you are. That's language.

In English, nouns that normally refer to objects that can be identified as units have different rules (singular indefinite article, pluralization) than other nouns that refer mostly to

  • abstractions (leadership, competence, darkness, death)
  • emotions (fear, joy, surprise -- really just one popular subset of abstractions)
  • fluids (water, gin, lava)
  • aggregates of small granularity (oats, wheat, rice, sand, gravel).

These are "mass nouns", and can be pluralized, or otherwise used like count nouns. As noted,
this means different kinds (types, varieties, brands, categories) of the otherwise mass noun.

In addition to this conventional countification of mass nouns, indicating varieties,
there is also a conventional massification of count nouns, indicating essence.

  • You get a lot of car for your money when you buy X.
  • After the bomb he ate went off, there was Godzilla all over Times Square.

This is English. But in many languages that use numeric classifiers (Malay, Burmese, Mandarin, Japanese), there's no distinction to speak of between mass and count -- all nouns are mass nouns, and if you need to count or otherwise distinguish what English would use a count noun for, you simply use a classifer instead. For instance, Japanese

  • ni-hon no enpitsu ‘two pencils’
  • ni-mai no kami ‘two sheets of paper’
  • ni-ko no ringo ‘two apples’
  • ni-ko no nasu ‘two [round] eggplants’
  • ni-hon no nasu ‘two [long thin] eggplants’

English doesn't have numeric classifiers, so we can't use this strategy.

5

In fact, mass nouns are routinely, and quite acceptably, treated as countable when they are taken to refer to individual items, collections, or quantities that are conceptually separable from one another:

Diner: What kinds of water do you have?

Server: In addition to tap water, we have three different bottled waters: Perrier, Aquafina, and Dasani.

Diner: My wife and I will have tap water, and the kids will each have a Coke.

Server: So that's two Cokes and two waters.

Similarly, signs offering meats and breads are commonplace at grocery stores, by the same rationale.

1

There are some nouns whose plurality (or singularity) is expressed in an auxiliary fashion (this is, by counting an auxiliary noun). For example if there is corn on the table:

There are twenty kernels of corn on the table. There are twelve cobs of corn on the table. There are seven ears of corn on the table.

If there is bread on the table:

There are nines slices of bread on the table. The are six loaves of bread on the table.

So you see the counting is performed in an auxiliary fashion, but we can still count!

0

I think in most languages there are nouns that are uncountable when used normally. When you think of water you normally think of the water of rivers or lakes or of the sea and you say a lot of water and you don't count and say "in the bucket there are five waters". The same is true for sand, snow, heat, cold, love etc.

Of course, such words can have special uses. In the supermarket you can find various sorts of bottled water. And a specialist for avalanche prevention can distinguish different sorts of snow. So you have to distinguish whether you use such words in their general sense as "mass nouns" or in a very special sense having different sorts of such masses in mind.

0

You can count them, but only if it's logical to do so. And likewise, a 'countable' noun can be used as uncountable: "The cherry tree grows well in this region."

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