How is rice and sugar uncountable while star is not? Counting grains of rice and crystals of sugar is not practical, yes. But isn't counting stars nearly impossible?

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    'Uncountable' is a misnomer. Use 'non-count'. A non-count noun usage is one where you can't acceptably insert a numeral or equivalent. So 'There was broken furniture lying about the room' shows a non-count usage. You can't say 'There were three / 97 / a dozen / some / many broken furnitures lying about the room' . But furniture (the stuff you're talking about, not this usage of the noun 'furniture') is etically (intrinsically) countable: 3 chairs + 2 tables + 2 cabinets = 7 items). – Edwin Ashworth Mar 20 '18 at 9:43
  • Look up 'etically' here: this quickly accesses some of the earlier treatments such as this one. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 20 '18 at 9:46
  • The word "furniture" is not a count noun. The fact that furniture happens to comprise tables, chairs etc., which are count nouns, is irrelevant. – BillJ Mar 20 '18 at 9:52
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    @BillJ Do try to be more careful before pontificating. I've just said that this usage is non-count. And I've said before that some post-2002 authorities license the plural form in certain usage/s. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 20 '18 at 9:53
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    sugar is countable in at least one sense, disaccharides are composed of two sugars, namely (simple sugars). – Zebrafish Mar 20 '18 at 10:06

You've answered your own question here. You count "grains" of rice and "crystals" of sugar. The grains and crystals are countable. The material that they constitute ("sugar" and "rice") is not.

Stars, on the other hand, are entities in themselves. Although there are a great many of them and counting all of them individually is (as you point out) impractical, they are not clustered close together. So counting the small subset of visible stars in a specific area is achievable.

You could say that the equivalent of "grains" to "rice" is "stars" to "universe". We count the stars, not the universes. We count the grains, not the rice. (And yes, you could add words like "galaxy" or "nebula" in there, too, but again, these are entities in their own right.)

  • Yes, Pam. Thank you. This leaves the second part of the question open. Shouldn't "stars" be uncountable too? – Arun Mar 20 '18 at 9:54
  • @Arun I've made an edit to account for "stars". – Pam Mar 20 '18 at 12:47
  • Yes. The key property is individuation. You can only count individuals, not masses which must be measured, nor abstractions like love that can't be measured. At a certain granularity, there is a grey area: rice is mass, but beans and lentils are count; even though they are roughly the same size, you have to say a bowl of rice and a bowl of beans and not the other way around. This is fairly arbitrary, but only at that granularity. – John Lawler Mar 20 '18 at 14:48

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