A guide to mass nouns

Making plural nouns in English can be confusing. Sometimes you add an “es.” Sometimes it’s just an “s.” Sometimes you add “ies.” And other times you add “en.”

Then once you’ve memorized all these rules, mass nouns enter the fray. There are no rules for making mass nouns plural because they can only be plural. Mass nouns, also called “uncountable nouns,” are substances, objects, and concepts that cannot be divided into separate parts. Think about the word “news.” There’s only news as a general idea. There isn’t one “new.” News is all of the important topics of the day, taken together as a collection.

The same goes with “sand.” There are beaches filled with sand, but you can’t find one sand. However, you can dig your hand into the ground and come up with grains of sand. This is one of the rules with mass nouns. If you want to use a mass noun, you have to place words in front that explain how much or many of the mass noun you have.

– a grain of sand
– piece of news
– a gallon of water

Another rule with mass nouns to keep in mind is that English treats mass nouns as if they were singular. For instance, instead of using “are,” use “is.”

– This juice is delicious.
– Greed is dangerous.

And if the verb you want to use usually drops an “s” with plural nouns, it will keep the “s” for mass nouns.

– The cheese tastes yummy.
– Your jewelry looks expensive.

List of mass nouns
This is by no means a complete list, but here is a brief collection to get you started:

advice
art
bravery
butter
cheese
chaos
clarity
courage
cowardice
currency
education
electricity
equipment
evidence
furniture
gas
greed
happiness
homework
honesty
information
insurance
jewelry
knowledge
livestock
love
luggage
marketing
money
mud
music
news
patriotism
power
racism
rice
sand
sexism
sugar
understanding
water
weather
wood

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7 thoughts on “A guide to mass nouns

  1. Hi,
    If one were to speak of seaweed on the rocks as being slippery, would “seaweed” be a mass noun requiring a singular verb, or is it a collective noun, requiring a singular verb when acting as a whole and a plural verb when acting individually? In the alternative, should one say, “The seaweeds are slippery.” ? I was wondering about this as I was stepping on slippery seaweed yesterday.
    Thanks,
    Melinda

    • Thanks for your comment, Melinda.

      I can’t put my finger on why, but something about “seaweed” makes it feel like it should be a mass noun or a collective noun. However, a trek to the dictionary reveals it’s just a regular old noun. The plural of “seaweed” is “seaweeds.” So when you eat one piece of candied seaweed, you would say, “Wow, this seaweed is delicious.” (singular verb). But if you are walking on rocks with more than one piece of seaweed, you would say, “Gosh, the seaweeds are slippery.” (plural verb)

      I hope this helps.

  2. Pingback: Number vs. amount | Grammar Party

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  4. Eric: A clue in a crossword puzzle by Brad Wilber read: “Word not usable with an indefinite article, such as ‘magic’ or ‘dust.’ The answer turned out to be “massnoun”. Might the massnoun “knowledge” in your list above be used with an indefinite article, such as “Do you have a knowledge of the way this works?” This “sounds” OK to me but I suppose so does “Do you have knowledge of …” with modifying it with an indefinite article. Hmmm. Thanks, John

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