Count nouns might not be as scary as Count Chocula, but they and their cousins, mass nouns and collective nouns, can be puzzling. Get down with nouns as we look at mass, count, and collective nouns and how to use them correctly.

 

Amid the wilderness of prescriptive grammar rules, nouns seem pretty tame. There are proper nouns, properly capitalized, and common nouns, commonly set lowercase. There are singular and plural nouns. Singular nouns take singular verbs, plural nouns take plural verbs. That's about it.

 

But tame nouns can get wild around the concept of singular and plural.

 

The first place this usually comes up is in a discussion of collective nouns and singular nouns. What do we do with a singular noun, such as jury, team, or even salon, that denotes a group with many separate members? "The jury is out" or "The jury are in"? "The team is winning" or "The team are going home now"? "The salon has discussed current literature" or "The salon have studied French, Spanish, and German"?

 

In the U.S.A., when a group of members behaves as a unit, it is singular. The jury has reached a verdict on that issue. When the members behave differently from one another, the verb becomes plural, since it referring to the actions of several separate units or people. "The jury have decided to disagree with one another." But, um, ewww? That's not a smooth or comfortable locution. The best thing to do when a unit of several members does that is to include a noun that specifies the units: "members." "The jury members have decided to disagree." Or, one can use a different word: "players" instead of "team," "hairstylists" or "philosophers" instead of "salon," etc.

 

In Great Britain and other Commonwealth and former Commonwealth countries, such as Canada, Australia, the Caribbean nations, etc., the opposite is true. "The committee are meeting." "The jury are arriving now." This is correct everywhere non-American English is spoken.

 

There's a nice succinct discussion of the issue for USA-style English speakers here: http://www.chompchomp.com/terms/collectivenoun.htm

 

 

A wholly different and more complex issue arises when considering mass and count nouns, and it is the issue that involves whether to use "fewer" or "less than."

 

Here's a quick way to look at mass and count nouns: You can count a count noun, such as "books" and "blueberries," but you can't count a mass noun, such as "jam" or "money," unless you are talking about counting specific classes or types of jam or money.

 

You can find a great discussion here: http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/GRAMMAR/noncount.htm

 

and Wikipedia has a surprisingly complex treatment here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass_noun

 

and here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Count_noun

 

 

Wikipedia's rather scholarly piece notes: "But the mass/count distinction remains a grammatical classification of expressions and not the sort of thing they refer to." This is important and worth investigating if one is interested in such things.

 

And if one is not one just wants to know whether one uses "fewer" or "less than" with mass or count nouns, please remember what my old boss said after our small, century-old publishing house was eaten by a giant conglomerate back in the 1980s. We received a memo from upper management, after being acquired, that informed us "[blank] will be publishing less books."

 

My boss, the most estimable copy chief I ever worked under, turned to me and said: "Less books, fewer money."

Comments
by B&N Bookseller melissas on ‎09-09-2009 11:33 PM

I had always wondered why some people say things like "The band are playing tonight." It never did sound right, but now I get it. Thanks for the enlightening piece!

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