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Most dictionaries don't say whether a noun is count vs. mass. Short of asking a fluent English speaker, where can you get this kind of information?

I've tried asking various other ESL/EFL people I know this same question, and also tried googling it, but to no avail.

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    As a request for resources, belongs on ELU.Meta. Commented Mar 7 at 16:06
  • 1
    This is too old to migrate to meta, but perhaps the powers that be could make it happen. @Laurel is it possible?
    – livresque
    Commented Mar 8 at 1:10

6 Answers 6

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Most English dictionaries used and published in the United States don't include that information, just as they don't provide IPA-based phonemic transcription. However, dictionaries published in the UK and elsewhere sometimes do, especially dictionaries for English learners.

One American online exception is Merriam-Webster's Learner's Dictionary, which dutifully reports that pea and bean are both [count], while rice and sand are both [noncount].

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    "sands" in Google Books: "About 15,400,000 results" incl. Sands, powders, and grains: an introduction to the physics of granular materials; Dynamics of marine sands: a manual for practical applications; and of course, "shifting sands" Shifting Sands: A Guidebook for Crossing the Deserts of Change;
    – Kris
    Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 12:36
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    This is a result of the well-established countification process for mass nouns. Why waste a perfectly good plural suffix when it can be used to signal something else, like diversity of type (15 inks used in this drawing) or vastness of extent (sands of the Sahara)? There is also a massification for count nouns, referring to undifferentiated physical or spiritual phenomena (a lot of car for the money), etc. Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 16:40
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    Cambridge online also provide this, labelling words as [C] or [U] for countable and uncountable.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 19 at 10:47
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Beware broad-brush approaches, even if you find a dictionary offering the count – uncount classification. Some – perhaps many – nouns are non-count in some senses and count in others. Coffee is a good example – its basic sense is uncount:

Coffee is a drink made by infusing the ground beans of Coffea arabica etc.

Too much coffee can be bad for you.

However, different products will be count:

Coffees produced using a higher proportion of robusta beans in the blend tend to be bitter and have less flavour but better body than those with a higher proportion of arabica beans.

And ellipsis produces another count-noun polyseme:

Two coffees, please.

(ie two cups / mugs of coffee)

Rice is count when different strains are meant, and sand when different sorts are being mentioned. (There is a poetic use of sands also.) Even furnitures is allowed in certain situations.

There are also grey areas – you'd probably ask for less peas rather than fewer peas (especially if they were mushy) on your plate. Non-count doesn't always mean that counting would be impossible - confetti is treated as a singular non-count noun. The difficulty ensuing when one tries to use algae in both count and non-count senses has recently been addressed in a different thread.

A good place to start looking is http://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/en/english-grammar/nouns/common-problems-countuncount-nouns.

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A response to the request for resources (though this properly belongs on ELU.Meta}:

  • The Collins Cobuild English Dictionary for Advanced Learners (certainly my copy - Edition 3, 2001) differentiates nouns as you require. It also tries to parse common phrases. It uses the term 'mass noun' for 'nouns which are normally uncount, but [behave in count fashion] when varieties are being referenced' - such as wine in I like wine / I like French wines.
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  • Note that I'm not asking for general approaches to distinguishing the two (I'm a native English speaker), but looking for a reference that learners can use.
    – Joe
    Commented Dec 17, 2012 at 21:58
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    The Collins Cobuild English Dictionary for Advanced Learners (certainly my copy - Edition 3, 2001) differentiates nouns as you require. It also tries to parse common phrases. It uses the term 'mass noun' for 'nouns which are normally uncount, but [behave in count fashion] when varieties are being referenced' - such as wine in I like wine / I like French wines. Commented Dec 17, 2012 at 22:43
  • I don't think I've heard countable rice, but it should follow spice. "In a Japanese supermarket, you can find numerous rices."
    – Kaz
    Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 1:44
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    If you can find a general set of rules, then learners can use that, instead of relying on a reference. There is a general semantic principle at play; I don't think this is a case of English speakers memorizing numerous exceptions.
    – Kaz
    Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 1:48
  • @EdwinAshworth, your comment is a great answer to my question.
    – Joe
    Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 4:14
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You should try Wiktionary. It lists the plural, or indicates that the noun is uncountable. For example, rice is listed as uncountable, and bean has the plural listed as beans.

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    After five beers, beer looks uncountable. Oops! And it can be made from lots of barleys, not just one variety of barley, just like sake can be made from various rices.
    – Kaz
    Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 1:46
  • @Kaz, true, but I call shenanigans.
    – Joe
    Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 4:14
  • I don't know if Wiktionary has changed since this answer was posted, but rice is described as "countable and uncountable" and barley as "usually uncountable". Nonetheless, it's reasonable to headline the far more common uncountable sense, as pretty much any English word can be pluralised, even adjectives and adverbs and conjunctions (ifs and buts and maybes are well known but you can do it with others).
    – Stuart F
    Commented Mar 8 at 11:41
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  1. https://oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com mentions if given word (or one of its meanings) is uncountable

  2. Android app from "dictionary.com" allows to see if given word is a mass noun or not. Although you may need to buy one of upgrades to have this functionality.

Example: mobile snapshot of dictionary.com's app and its definition of the term rice

rice

[ raɪs ]
mass noun

  1. Rice consists of white or brown grains taken from a cereal plant. You cook rice and usually eat it with meat or vegetables.
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    Commented Jul 18 at 12:06
  • @Mari-LouA I'm exhausted, I will crop the image tomorrow. Commented Jul 18 at 17:59
  • @Mari-LouA You didn't have to! But thanks for helping. I also made additional further improvements after your edit. Commented Jul 19 at 11:58
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wikiontary and etymologyonline.com are good sources.

Mass / COME / COMMITTER Nouns are Continuum-like descriptions for features that are integrated / unified / committed to making up the object (usually because they are continuous or undifferentiated)

COUNTER Nouns are Discrete-like descriptions for features that are separately making up the object

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    I don't see any mention of countness at etymologyonline.com, and Wiktionary has already been mentioned. Commented Mar 7 at 16:11
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The best account I know is in the Oxford English Grammar by Sidney Greenbaum. At 3.26 he explains the concept of number in nouns.

The category of number distinguishes between singular and plural nouns. Number contrast does not ordinarily apply tp proper nouns, such as Caroline or the Netherlands. Common nouns can be either count (or countable) or non-count (or uncountable or mass). Count nouns have number contrast:

  • house/houses, nurse/nurses. Non-count nouns generally do not have a plural form: wine,information. but many of them are occasionally converted into count-nouns to refer to kinds or quantities: French wines, two teas (cups of tea).

So the word 'water' is an obvious non-count noun. Most of the time, it refers to a mass of the stuff, but not always, as Greenbaum illustrates above.

Beyond that, there are other special cases. Proper names can be used in the plural, as some people might speak of someone they dislike as "a little Hitler" and you could speak of "little Hitlers" of a disliked group of people.

Poetry and so rhetoric can generate plurals, as in the Old Testament.

"By the waters of Babylon I laid down and wept."

Obviously, these are not 'types' of water, but more probably stretches of water. The 'waters' that break at the onset of childbirth are obviously not a plurality of water but simply have always been spoken of as if 'they' were. That is why we have to be very careful not to be tied down to a fixed definition.

Nevertheless, 'water' is (normally used as) a non-count noun without a plural. The stuff it (normally) refers to can be measured, but not counted (because it is a mass of the stuff). Yet poets love to put it in the plural, as did the Roman Horace in his Odes Book IV ode 1, a love poem to a young man.

In my night time dreams / now I have caught and hold you; now I pursue you in flight / now through the grasses of the Field / of Mars, now, cruel man, through rushing waters.

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