I personally interpret “surroundings” as at least a plural-only noun but possibly just a noun whose plural form is much more common than its singular form in modern usage.

But on a forum I frequent, a user is claiming that it's actually a mass (uncountable) noun.

I admit that this one is a bit harder to analyse than other words I've thought about, so I'd like to see the thoughts of the English language experts here.

  • 2
    Using the test that count nouns take numerals two, three ... with the plural form, surroundings is clearly seen to be non-count. It is plural in form and takes plural agreement. Compare clothes, which, however, describes an etically countable situation (7 garments, say). Commented Mar 11, 2018 at 8:35
  • 1
    The word 'surround' refers to a thing that surrounds and that can be plural - 'the surrounds around the mantelpieces'. But in the nature of the concept 'surroundings' it cannot be singular.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Mar 11, 2018 at 14:04
  • 3
    I would say it's a plurale tantum.
    – JDF
    Commented Mar 20, 2018 at 14:44
  • 1
    Nouns occur in more surroundings than verbs.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 18:56
  • 1
    Yep, one surroundings, two surroundings are no goes on their face.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 18:58

3 Answers 3


There are confusing and conflicting terminologies surrounding this subject, not least as offered by dictionaries; I feel a well-formatted answer is needed.

  • morphology: Like dogs, radii, oxen, paintings, 'surroundings' is plural in form.
  • agreement: Like dogs, radii ... but also police and not news, surroundings takes a plural verb form.[1]
  • countness: As two / three / 274 surroundings are ungrammatical (though countification is highly productive and this may not be the case in 2121), according to the strict rule sensibly voiced by CGEL (Huddleston & Pullum), surroundings is non-count. It is usually unwise to label a noun count or non-count, as many if not most exhibit both usages. [2]
  • etic countability: This does not always correspond logically to the countness of a noun. Countness is a label telling us whether a numeral may be used before the noun; countability tells us whether the referent is denumerable. So with 'the furniture in my room consists of a table, three chairs and a bookcase', 'furniture' is a non-count usage and I have 5 actual items. 'Surroundings' cannot realistically be numbered (though note that 'environment' may be pluralised for different instances, OLD).


[1] Her surroundings are utterly symmetrical, in a quasi-classicizing fashion. [Cambridge Dictionary]

[2] Compare the undisputedly plural-form and non-count 'clothes': *2/17/100 clothes.


Surroundings is a plural count noun—which also has the singular count noun form surrounding—and it is not a mass noun. There are some quick and dirty tests, wait that is another website. There are some tests that tend toward reliability that can be performed to distinguish a mass noun from a count noun.

Excursis: First, a disclaimer. Nouns aren't really mass and/or count. Speakers of the language put their nouns to mass usage or count usage, or sometimes both (light vs lights). Sometimes the use that speakers (I am using speakers rathers than users to avoid the pairing of the subjects users with the verb use, which can be dulling and distracting, much like this aside). And, over time, speakers may begin to put a noun to a different usage. Emails is an example of a plural count noun, whether some of us don't like it. Or to be consistent: I should say that many speakers use email as a count noun (I have received 44 emails today). Nevertheless, henceforth I'm gonna say that a noun "is" mass and/or a noun "is" count because that is the way people usually talk about nouns, at least in this setting.

So, there's another noun, called news, which we can look at, along with surroundings. This will help us compare and contrast, always a pleasant passageway.

I. Can the noun be used with a plural verb?

1a *The news are on TV.

That sounds ugly. Even in GB, where they sometimes speak wonkily, often about football teams, as if a single team is I dunno what, Alice: the team are playing well today. So, la, 1a,1 sounding ugly to this speaker/writer, gets an asterisk (*) before it, meaning it's not "grammatical." Let's just try that one more time, this once with a past tense plural verb:

1b *The news which were on TV fifty years ago said that Jimmy Hendrix's various entourages were all as good as the other.

The most important part of that sentence is, for us, for now2

1bii *The news which were on TV fifty years ago said blah blah or wah wah

Again, or thrice now, news has not worked with a plural verb. If you don't agree with this, then well, just hold on to your Hosses, there're others that're otherly used.

I bet youre thinking it's time to take a look at our surrounding (or should that be surroundings?) and see if its... if the word's copastetic with a plural noun.

1c The surroundings are on TV.

Hmmm.....it sounds fine to me. Some folks might have to think before they ken what the sentence means. That might sound like a caviar to some, so let's pass to

1d The surroundings at the Jimi Hendrix fest were all copastetic.

which by backtreading we can get

1cii The surroundings were so copastetic that they were on the 10 o'clock news.

La, de, dah: The surroundings are, the surroundings were: Fine and Jimi.

Test I Results:
News has failed the plural verb test: that strongly suggests that it's used as a mass noun;
Surroundings has passed the plural verb test: this suggests strongly that it's used as a count noun.

II. Can the Noun Be Used with the Indefinite Article?

2a Look ma! *A news is being broadcast on TV right now.

Not possible. Not with news as a noun. Compare

2b Look pa! A surrounding is being broadcast on TV right now.

Eh, what, junior. A what, junior?

2c A surrounding, pa. A surrounding that constantly stimulates thought and speech is being broadcast on TV right now.

NB that stimulates is a singular-form verb, as is is. Both agree with a surrounding. For much collaborating evidence of this, see, for example, many uses of a surrounding that followed by a singular verb.

Test II Results
News has failed the test using the indefinite article before it, again strongly suggesting it is a mass noun, or that it being used as a mass noun; while

Surroundings has passed the test using the indefinite article before its singular form, strongly suggesting it is being used as a count noun; and along the way showing that it does have a singular form.

The third and last test that this answer will consider is

III. Do you use how many or how much with the Verbs in Question?

3a *How many news do you have to watch before you find out whether Man City have defeated Liverpool?

No. But compare:

3ai How much news do you have to watch...

As for our other word, there's

?3b How many surroundings do you have to experience before you are convinced as to which one is the best for you?

I put a question mark (?) before this one, because some people might not like it; although I find it "unremarkable", which is geek-speak for "fine and dandy." But...if how many leaves you unsure, try the bare many:3

3c 'Mr Spectator' himself was a carefully balanced persona, a man at ease in many surroundings (the coffee-house, the theatre, or the financial Exchange), not as a participant,...

Test III says that how many and many work with count nouns; and how much and much work with mass nouns (compare my usage, above, of 'much evidence'). Our application of this test corresponds with the conclusion, which is stated below-ward.

CONCLUSION: applying the three tests to the words news and surroundings very strongly suggests that native speakers use the former as a mass moun; and the latter as a count noun. Along the merry brick way, we've seen that surroundings does indeed occur in the singular.

Finally, to further buttress the conclusion, so that it won't fall down upon these words, note that the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has no head entry (lemma) for surroundings, plural. There is a head entry for surrounding, singular; with definitions for both the singular and plural forms. This, again, supports strongly the answer that surroundings is a count noun, and that it occurs in both the singuar and plural as a count noun.

Per the OED, in its singular form, surrounding has the meaning of

A number of persons standing around; a body of attendants; entourage.

with two examples, one being

Their games were watched with much interest by a surrounding of Southerns.

(Daily News (London), 1891)

Which word surroundings can be replaced by entourage, if not that of Jimi Hendrix, at least that of the "Southerns" who have invaded the roostages of this answer's footnotes, found at the foot of this answer; for answers, like Southerns, have feet.

For the plural, the OED gives the definition:

Those things which surround a person or thing, or in the midst of which he or it (habitually) is; things around (collectively); environment.

Notice the word things.

If someone is looking for the CONCLUSION here, I'll repeat that surroundings is a plural count noun—which also has the singular count noun form surrounding—and it is not a mass noun.

1 There is no typo or misprint here. I am saying 'So, la2, [sentence #]1a, sounding ugly...'.*

2 For we will get back to Jimi's entourage in the course of this coursefully coursing answer. Meantime, you'll want to return to Exhibits 1b and 1bii. Sorry I can't throw a switch and like Luke hyperlink you there—or then—to a link far far away.

3 Not to be confused with this 'bare mini'. After spectating that article you'll want to beat a retreat to Exhibit 3c.

*Donut make me try'n splain-it ag'in; asn it aint worth't. Jussn you now sen'ents 1A issen' grammatik. Nah like 'issen, witch be grammatik. Nor iz there a wasted word in this entyre awnsah. Essepn may b Jimi. Jimi maybbe wassid. O a' leese wasin' aweigh. Who Jimi? Jimi witta ON-TOUR-AHGE. Lawhssy, Clayyair, yussa gonna plum where me yout a'clymen up teeztairs. Yuza yusta not yussa woh me ou' wen we waz yussa yoh yondr youngn acomin-by n tat bye-n-by we be sweete bye. §Dear reader, please return to the text of the answer and ignore these Southerns; the remembrance of things past has called forth my dialect antique to climb out of my sublimated conscious; but we will overcome.

  • 2
    I can see that I'm going to have to drop 'many' from my countness test. '[A] man at ease in many surroundings (the coffee-house, the theatre, or the financial Exchange), not as a participant,...' certainly raises no hackles. But the numeral test is the one CGEL give, and it almost always gives a ruling. Of course, who decides which tests should apply is another matter ... / As I say in the comments, I class this usage as non-count / plural form / plural agreement // etically uncountable. Commented Jul 11, 2019 at 15:13

"Surroundings" takes plural concord, so I think it ought to be categorized as a plural noun

There are some nouns in English that can reasonably be said to be plural only in form. For example, "news" in the sentence "This news is important" takes the singular determiner this and triggers singular agreement on the verb is, which is grounds for calling it a singular noun, even though it was historically derived from new by adding the plural suffix and it continues to looks identical in form to a regular plural noun.

But the word "surroundings" clearly does not behave like the word "news". We can say "These surroundings are dangerous": the use of the plural determiner these and the plural verb are shows that "surroundings" is plural not only in form, but also in parts of its grammar.

The concept of "mass noun" or "uncountable noun" is a bit tricky to define. If being singular is part of the definition of a "mass noun", that's a problem for assigning "surroundings" to this category. But it could be considered a plural uncountable noun.

As Edwin Ashworth indicates in a comment, the idea of "countable" and "uncountable" nouns doesn't necessarily relate directly to grammatical number in the sense of "singular vs. plural". Even though "mass nouns" or "uncountable nouns" in English are usually singular in form and take singular agreement, it is possible to argue that some nouns that have a plural form and/or take plural agreement are also "uncountable" in the sense that they cannot be preceded by numeral words.

Unfortunately, I don't have enough knowledge of the relevant literature to be able to say how commonly the numeral test is used as a criterion for determining if a noun should be categorized as "uncountable".

  • 3
    So the answer is you don't know if "surroundings" is a plural or mass noun? Or it could be either? Do native speakers ever say "I like the surrounding"?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 4, 2018 at 8:24
  • 1
    @Mari-Lou A According to CGEL (pp 334-343), surroundings is non-count (failing the 3/7/a few/a dozen... test) but plural (which means in their terms taking a plural verb-form; they class 'mathematics', plural in form, as singular). Commented Jul 11, 2019 at 14:28

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.