There are many questions on this site (EL&U) about countable and uncountable nouns, including one about uncountable nouns that can sometimes be used as if they were countable nouns. This question is about its opposite.

There are nouns such as excess for which the plural form excesses is also in use, albeit with a significantly narrowed meaning in this particular case. That excess is a countable noun is further supported by the phrase "there is an excess of ..." sounding more natural than "there is excess of ...".

Now, although excess is a countable noun, it isn't actually countable beyond having one of them - you can have an excess of wheat, but you can't have two excesses of wheat, for example. Contrast this with a truly uncountable noun such as water, where the construct two waters could be read as an elided form of two bodies of water or two glasses of water.

Other related words such as abundance and, less universally, shortage also have this property, as does extent, to an extent.

Is there a more compact term than the phrase itself for seemingly countable nouns that are normally used as if they are uncountable nouns?

Sample sentence: "[Semi-countable] nouns are restricted to the singular."

Update The construct "a/an [xyz] of ..." is often used with collective nouns, e.g. a disguising of tailors. A strange property of collective nouns is that the chosen word (like disguising in my example, or better still, like the amble in an amble of walkers") need only to be suggestive of some property of the group described, and doesn't even need to be nouns at all when not used as a collective noun. I wouldn't normally consider the phrase "an abundance of wheat" to be a collective noun, but perhaps that is at least a step towards an appropriate label.

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    Sure you can have excesses, and abundances and shortages and extents, too. – StoneyB on hiatus Dec 8 '15 at 0:04
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    An excess of wheat in Russia and an excess in the US paralleled a shortage of wheat in Iceland and a shortage in the Antartic. The two excesses were matched with the two shortages and everybody got doughnuts. – JEL Dec 8 '15 at 0:07
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    @JEL In fact, so many doughnuts were supplied that many people overindulged and suffered severe stomachaches as a result of their excesses. – StoneyB on hiatus Dec 8 '15 at 0:28
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    There needs to be a conceptual differentiation between the signifier and the signified. 'Confetti' (plural in form but given singular agreement) and 'rice' (singular in form and given singular agreement) are usually used in the mass senses but have etically discrete referents (when boxed). – Edwin Ashworth Dec 8 '15 at 1:21
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    @ But that article also has 'nouns that are chiefly uncountable': I'd disregard it as inaccurate (as proved by its confused use of terminology). / The whole issue is not clear. What do we call usages such as 'A dappled sunlight softly washed the edges of the gravestone'? (Singular article but non-availability of '2/3... dappled sunlights ...). And how countable (in the maths sense) are say neutrinos? One can speak of count and non-count (and I'd add problem) usages. A broadening to a count usage not formerly available is called 'countification'; the reverse broadening 'massification'. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 8 '15 at 1:31

Thanks (or should I say, "A big thank you" :) ) to all who commented on the question, especially @EdwinAshworth.

I have gathered 3 relevant points from the discussion and links and simply collate these as an answer for ease of future reference.

First, terminology. As EdwinAshworth points out, this is an example of countification, where excess functions as a countable noun even though it is not normally so. Excess is said to be countified. (The opposite is massification.) Regardless of dictionary classification, words are considered to be countable or uncountable nouns by their usage in context.

Secondly, the phenomenon of countification crops up in the coining of collective nouns, as pointed out in the update to the question.

Finally, countification tends to happen when the counting term (a/an/two, etc) is applied to an elided term. For example, the related question that @EdwinAshworth noted asked about the phrase "a blinding sunlight". That phrase could be read as "a blinding [type of] sunlight" with the words in brackets elided, where the counting term "a" is applied to "type". The example I used, "an excess of wheat", could be read as "an excess amount of wheat" with amount elided. In each case, the elided term is without question a countable noun.

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  • Do you have a question? – Cargill Dec 8 '15 at 3:54
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    @Cargill Yes, it's in the title. After the discussion, I'm satisfied with the above answer, which is basically that uncountable nouns do not really become uncountable nouns - they only appear to be countable due to elision. Should I rewrite the question text? I answered my own question because the discussions took place completely in comments and a chat room, with no answers posted at the time. – Lawrence Dec 8 '15 at 4:41
  • I meant "uncountable nouns do not really become countable nouns ...". – Lawrence Dec 8 '15 at 5:58
  • I don't accept the broad-brush collective noun interpretation. It is hard to recover sensibly appropriate (rather than merely clinically logical) deleted material from 'a great dread overwhelmed them' or 'a gentle light stole over the heavens'; it's an emphatic, poetic, almost personifying device – Edwin Ashworth Dec 8 '15 at 16:09
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    @EdwinAshworth The label isn't the point - any alternative category to "great" would do. I don't disagree with the Useful English quote, but even there, the pattern fits. "Such, certain, special, peculiar" each implicitly divides its complement into categories and highlights one. My theory is that in the context of my question, the indefinite article is associated in a natural way with elided words. You haven't disproved this; pet theory is just ad hominem - it fails as an argument. – Lawrence Dec 8 '15 at 23:28

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