By zafor ahmed


2014-06-02 17:59:35 8 Comments

We know that there is no plural form of the "uncountable noun," but, for example, we write:

His sufferings force us to retain pity for him.

Is it possible to make an uncountable noun plural? If so, please explain it.

2 comments

@Edwin Ashworth 2014-06-02 18:33:48

"[W]e know that there is no plural form of 'uncountable noun' ..."

Do we really?

[I'm taking this preamble to read 'we know that mass nouns are always singular' in line with the statement below: ' ... the idea that mass nouns are always singular has been part of conventional wisdom ever since Bloomfield (1933)'.]

Peter Lasersohn, in Mass Nouns and Plurals, writes:

[One] issue is whether the term 'mass' should be understood broadly enough to include some morphologically plural examples. Jespersen argued that a wide range of plural nouns were actually mass, including examples such as

victuals, oats, brains (in the sense exemplified in blow out somebody’s brains), dregs, lees, proceeds, measles, mumps, hysterics, blues, creeps, and others.

We may note that these impose plural agreement on the verb, but (under the relevant reading) combine with much rather than many:

(8) a. In this kind of work, brains are less important than guts.

b. It doesn’t take much brains to figure this out.

Here again Bloomfield (1933) introduced a shift in terminology, stipulating that mass nouns “have no plural,” without providing discussion of Jespersen’s examples; the idea that mass nouns are always singular has been part of conventional wisdom ever since.

Plural mass nouns have been periodically rediscovered (McCawley 1975, Gillon 1992 ), and are treated in detail in Ojeda (2005). Some authors (e.g. Gleason 1965: 135) consider such examples to be neither count nor mass, but a third category.

Even if we recognize some morphologically plural examples as mass nouns, it should be noted that they, like morphologically singular mass nouns, lack a number distinction; in these examples it is simply the singular which is “missing” rather than the plural.

I don't think that anyone would reckon the noun clothes, which takes a plural verb, to be a count noun. Wikipedia [tidied] comments:

mass nouns such as "water" or "furniture", with which only singular verb forms are used : the constituent matter is handled in a grammatically nondiscrete way (although it may ["water"] or may not ["furniture"] be etically nondiscrete)

And, though garments can be counted and so 'clothes' is etically discrete, it is not handled as a typical count noun accepting numerals.

Although there are rare usages of 'sufferings' (as indeed for 'furnitures' and 'waters') as a true count noun (eg 'The Three Sufferings – Balanced Holistic Weight Management'), the plural mass-noun usage equivalent to 'what he has gone / is going through' is far more common and is almost certainly the intended usage here. Consider: one would do a double-take on seeing say "three trials and tribulations".

@John Lawler 2014-06-02 18:37:36

There are a lot of varieties of noun, and Mass/Count is not really an open/shut matter. Massification and countification are both quite common.

@ruakh 2014-06-03 01:31:40

Nothing in your answer says anything about plural forms of uncountable nouns. If you think that sufferings is not the plural form of the uncountable noun suffering, but rather is simply a plural uncountable noun unto itself, then you should say so (and delete your misleading first few sentences); without such a statement, I don't think this actually answers the question.

@Edwin Ashworth 2014-06-03 08:08:08

@ ruakh: I thought that McCawley, Gillon and Ojeda, and Jespersen (who 'argued that a wide range of plural nouns were actually mass') might be more persuasive than myself. Though I do certainly think that they, and not Bloomfield, are correct here.

@ruakh 2014-06-03 14:47:48

@EdwinAshworth: I'm not sure what your point is. McCawley, Gillon and Ojeda, and Jespersen are not saying anything about plural forms of uncountable nouns; rather, they're talking about nouns that are both plural and uncountable. The distinction is fundamental, and the OP was asking about the former (or thought (s)he was).

@ruakh 2014-06-03 14:48:37

@EdwinAshworth: Ah, O.K., I now see your edit. I disagree with your inference, but making it explicit makes this a bunch better answer; thanks.

@Edwin Ashworth 2014-06-03 18:38:13

@ ruakh Before one starts trying to distinguish between 'plural forms of uncountable nouns' and 'nouns that are both plural and uncountable', one has to define plural forms of nouns, uncountable nouns, and plural nouns. Ojeda spells out the problem: 'clothes' [being both 'a mass noun' and 'a plural noun'] is ... an embarrassment for semantic theory. ... In short, clothes should refer to discrete entities taken in bulk rather than collectively and, at the same time, to discrete entities taken collectively rather than in bulk. This embarrassing predicament is the paradox of mass plurals.

@Edwin Ashworth 2014-06-03 18:50:03

[Wikipedia]: 'In linguistics, a mass noun or uncountable noun is a noun with the syntactic property that any quantity of it is treated as an undifferentiated unit, rather than as something with discrete subsets.' BUT '... mass nouns such as furniture and cutlery, which represent more easily quantified objects, show that the mass/count distinction should be thought of as a property of the terms themselves, rather than as a property of their referents.'>> We could start by distinguishing 'nouns specifying >1 discrete referents' from 'nouns taking a plural verb'.

@njboot 2014-06-02 19:15:21

"While uncountable nouns do not generally take a plural form, sometimes they may be pluralized when used in a countable sense."**

Uncountable nouns are usually singular, but not always. It's not a catch-all rule by any means, especially when discussing abstract nouns used in the countable sense. Take this example:

He has sympathy for the sufferings of his fellow countrymen.

You can't quantify the suffering of each countryman. Thus, you can't quantify the sufferings of the countrymen either. Nonetheless, each one suffers. So, when the countrymen are considered as a whole, each one's suffering amounts to their sufferings.

Though general rules regarding the countable/uncountable distinction are valid, there are many exceptions and the context is important. Here's a good example:

It's always wrong to take a life [countable singular] because life [uncountable singular] is precious. The lives [uncountable plural] of many have been sadly cut short. That being said, how lucky are cats to have nine lives [countable plural]?

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