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Ignoring the difference in spelling between "mould" and "mold" for the moment, I need to categorise the following terms into "masses of substances" or "masses of substances made up of parts too numerous to count". The two contentious items are "mould" (as in fungi) and "mud".

Under "masses of substances" we have glue, margarine, tofu, beer. Under "masses of substances made up of parts too numerous to count" we have gravel, dust, sand, flour.

Where should mould and mud go?

Context:
I'm editing a grammar text book. This is one of the practice exercises, and I'm busy with the answer book. Unfortunately the author and I can't agree on mud and mould, and the author doesn't seem so sure. The instructions are: "Draw a table, write the nouns from the list under the correct headings".

Usage is not at stake here because it is the same. We're trying to highlight the conceptual difference between a substance made up of parts which theoretically one could count and something that is a mass. We need to differentiate between these two types of substances so that students can recognise that sand and gravel are uncountable, even though they are made up of countable particles. We also do not say "many waters" but that's easy for the average student, there is no way to count units of water.

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    Why do you need to categorize them? Is this related to some grammar rule that you heard? – herisson Aug 19 '15 at 6:40
  • I'm editing a grammar text book. This is one of the practice exercises, and I'm busy with the answer book. Unfortunately the author and I can't agree on mud and mould, and the author doesn't seem so sure. The instructions are: "Draw a table, write the nouns from the list under the correct headings". – Ferntree Aug 19 '15 at 6:46
  • But why is this a matter of grammar rather than philosophy? Does it make a difference to how you would use them in a sentence? – herisson Aug 19 '15 at 6:48
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    Hmm. Song of Solomon 8:7? However, counting uncountable nouns is counting types: "Many gravels are obtained through open-cast mining". Since there is no real grammar involved in the examples mould and mud, I'd just not use those at all. It doesn't really matter how the student categorises them: they are treated the same anyway. (Or: put them in both lists, for the same reason) – Andrew Leach Aug 19 '15 at 10:37
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    You need to refine your thinking. 'Confetti', for instance, is treated as a mass noun and given singular concord though it is etically count and plural in form. We'd probably ask for 'less lentils' rather than 'fewer': a count noun treated as being mass. And the analysis does become philosophical: individual atoms can be 'observed' with some microscopes. Does this make 'gold' say etically count? – Edwin Ashworth Aug 19 '15 at 11:46
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I would say that this is not a good exercise, and you should advise the author not to require the student to distinguish between these two purely conceptual classes. If you two can't agree on it, it seems to me extremely unfair to expect a (possibly non-native) student to correctly guess which one of your opinions ends up being marked as "correct" (because presumably the other one will be marked "wrong").

Instead, the text should explain the general semantics of mass nouns, but the exercises should only require the student to correctly identify the grammatical category of a noun: count or non-count.

Furthermore, since many nouns can be used in either way, I'd recommend only requiring the student to identify or produce the distinction in context: either give example sentences that contain the words you want them to know how to use, or instruct them to use the words in an appropriate way in sentences. (You might provide template sentences and have them fill in the blank in some way that shows that they know whether the noun is count or non-count.)

  • I would also suggest that if Ferntree has reason to not trust the "authority" of the author then one should wonder if this text should be written at all. – Hot Licks Aug 21 '15 at 1:37
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When you see mold growing in your bathroom, it might look like someone just painted a line of black along the edge of the tile. But it is made up of many tiny unicellular organisms.

If you study soils, you'll learn that there are three types of mineral particles found in soils -- sand, silt and clay. Sand particles are the largest, clay particles are the smallest, and silt particles are in between. A given soil can be characterized by the proportion of each of these types of particles. So if we are considering just the soil, we'd have to say it's similar to sand. But to get mud, we have to introduce water, and in my opinion the water trumps the soil particles.

Okay, that was sort of fun. But it's completely useless for students of English. For a grammar book, you need to focus on much more straightforward words.

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