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What is the element that causes many abstract nouns to be both countable and uncountable (not with different meanings)?

To illustrate the point, a word like taste as a noun when it means "the feelings that each person has about what is appealing, attractive, etc. : the feelings that cause someone to like or not like something." according to Webster's Advanced Learner's Dictionary, is both countable and uncountable:

The movie is intended to appeal to popular taste. (Non-count)
The store has something to suit all tastes. (Count)

What is it exactly that makes the abstract noun taste or other such nouns be both countable and uncountable?

  • They're English words, perhaps? – Hot Licks Nov 29 '15 at 15:31
  • @HotLicks What are English words?! – Englishfreak Nov 29 '15 at 16:04
  • Words in the English language,vs terms in some sort of formal mathematical notation, perhaps. – Hot Licks Nov 29 '15 at 22:15
  • Whenever it makes sense for an uncountable noun to have countable instances, then both are valid. Did you have some milk? Yes, but I only tried a few of the different milks on offer- I tried the goat’s milk and the yak’s milk and the sheep’s milk. – Jim Nov 30 '15 at 4:30
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    I think the premise of the question is flawed. taste, as given in the examples, is always a countable noun. "popular taste" is not an uncountable noun, it is one instance of all the possible tastes that are out there. Milk, as a concrete noun for something that comes in both continuous amounts (uncountable) and discrete types (countable) has a clear reason for uncountable and countable versions. Is there a better abstract noun example than taste? – GreenAsJade Nov 30 '15 at 5:41
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I think that a transition from mass noun to countable noun occurs when you countenance the possibility of types of the original.

We have seen that milk (a mass noun) can be treated as countable when you use the word with type qualifiers (yak milk, goat milk, many milks ... many types of milk).

Similarly "taste" may be looked at as a mass noun (if you choose to think of popular taste that way), but then becomes countable when you allow for different tastes - different types of taste: my taste in music differentiated from your taste in music - a store to suit all tastes in music.

An example given in some dictionaries of a mass noun is "happiness". But we could consider different types of happiness, and this would lead to happinesses. This example is "extreme" and doesn't sound "right" IMHO only because we don't usually think of different types of happiness, wheras it's easy to think of types of milk.

Rain is another example that leaps to mind. Swedish rain might be different to English rain, and lead us to studying the rains of the world.

I think, then, the answer to the question is "the thing that makes these abstract nouns become both countable and non-countable is our propensity to classify them into types".

Happiness and rain are not often considered to have "variants", and thus are not naturally countable. Milk and taste appear to be amenable to variants, and we can easily construct sentences with them countable.


Side note: there are other examples of where a word functions as countable and non-countable, but these appear to all be differences in meaning. For example I like coffee (mass noun) and I want to order two coffees (two cups of coffee - different meaning).

Interestingly, coffee-as-a-mass-noun can be made countable without changing its meaning to mean cups of coffe... by referring to types of coffee! If I say "coffees of the world" we know that I mean types of coffee in the world. This appears to me to further validate my suggestion that it is when we countenance differentiation of the mass noun that we get countable usage with it.

  • Does that suggest we can use them interchangeably? In the examples for trouble, can we say "The new system is giving me troubles (count).", and she told me all her personal trouble (noncount). – Englishfreak Dec 1 '15 at 12:43
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    But you can't say "the new system is giving me a trouble", which suggests that "trouble" is a non-count noun in this sense even when pluralized. – Peter Shor Dec 1 '15 at 12:50
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    Do you really mean that the new system is giving you different types of trouble? In that case you need to make this clear by saying "The new system is giving me various troubles". I think that if you don't include any indication of plurality, then it is just a wrong sentence. It also matters whether we are accustomed to thinking of types of trouble. "The system is giving me a trouble" suffers from this - it fails to be talking about types of trouble, so countable doesn't apply. I think the point is that these mass nouns become countable in the context of differentiating types, only. – GreenAsJade Dec 1 '15 at 12:54
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    Meanwhile, "She told me all her personal trouble" seems wrong, because "all" is making the noun countable, yet you used the uncountable version. Further, each of these personal troubles she is telling you about is different, and that is why the noun has become firmly countable in this case. – GreenAsJade Dec 1 '15 at 12:55

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