There are nouns in English that we classify as mass nouns. These nouns are uncountable and do not have plural forms. Occasionally, we refer to them as non-count or uncountable nouns. Mass nouns show whether a noun has a singular or plural form. The mass noun is useful when a speaker is referring to substances like coffee or beer. However, it is less applicable in abstract nouns like knowledge and work, among others (Biber, Leech, and Conrad, 2002).
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Mass nouns reflect a reference to amass and indiscrete elements. We can easily identify mass nouns using their syntactic properties. However, we must note that semantic contexts of mass nouns remain controversial due to diverse grammatical elements of different languages. We cannot directly modify mass nouns in English by using numbers without giving a discrete unit of measurement. At the same time, mass nouns cannot take the form of indefinite articles like “a” or “an”. For instance, we do not have “a coffee or an coffee neither do we have a beer or an beer”. Therefore, any attempt to quantify a mass noun must take a discrete unit of measurement, e.g. “three mugs of coffee or two bottles of beer” (BNC, 2012). In some cases, we may quantify mass nouns without using a unit of measurement, for instance, much coffee.
We can use some mass nouns to mean plural forms of objects of reference. Under such circumstances, mass nouns are no longer mass nouns, but rather act as count nouns syntactically. In some cases, mass nouns (uncountable and have no plural forms) may have plural forms in a given context. This paper shall focus on the plural usage of mass nouns like coffee and beer concerning the British National Corpus (BNC) to provide meaning and context when a speaker may use mass nouns such as coffees and beers.
Analysis of ‘mass nouns’ usage context
A quick and easy search at NBC reveals that there are 458 different circumstances under which the term beers appear to reflect different usages and meanings. On the other hand, coffee has 86 usages with different meanings. Some scholars argue that all English nouns may be mass nouns. For instance, Sharvy notes that a move from a mass-to-count noun is not lexical, but rather a change we notice when we insert an empty unit of measurement in syntax (Sharvy, 1978). Thus, the use of a mass noun beer in plural form is possible due availability of a classifier at a syntax level that creates the change from mass noun to the countable noun. Consequently, it is possible to have two beers and two coffees. In some cases, numerical classifiers in the English language may be similar to those found in the Chinese language.
The shift in the plural form of a mass noun involves changes in the syntactic function of classifier insertion. However, some scholars claim that shift operates as lexical. This argument focuses on noun form. These scholars note that mass nouns do not have plural forms in cases where they have classifiers. For instance, we have three bottles of beer and not three bottles of beer.
Mass nouns that have plural forms also have plural morphological when we apply them in a sentence. For instance, “All the beers are full mash”. Under certain cases, we can leave plural morpheme in a given context. For instance, we can have “four beer” without the plural part of it in a restaurant setting (BNC, 2012).
Phrases which lack the plural morphologies are possible in certain cases of a usage context. For example, we may also have “three coffee” in a hotel setting. This classification has a mass noun form where speakers may see them as overt classifiers. In addition, it further shows that there is an empty classifier available in such sentence constructions. Therefore, we may only use such plural in a given context where we expect language usage in that manner. Any other use outside a given context may be suspect. Therefore, shifts in mass nouns to countable nouns must be in the lexicon used.
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Sometimes, we may use mass nouns in the plural to reflect cumulative sense. For instance, we may say “Farmers left some coffee here” (BNC, 2012). In this case, coffee has a cumulative connotation, thus, functions as a mass noun. On the other hand, if we have “coffee”, then we use it under mass noun context. However, when we change it to “a coffee“, it represents a discrete unit of measurement. In the case of beer, we use it as a mass noun as well as a countable noun to represent a perceived unit of it. For instance, we may say “Two beers are not enough for the party”. We may also refer to a diverse range of beer as “All of these may vary from brew to brew, leading to beers with variable bitterness” (BNC, 2012).
We cannot assume that some words which represent substances take mass nouns automatically, thus, easily becoming plural. Most scholars note that nouns do not bear lexical categories in cases of mass and countable nouns cases. Therefore, speakers must specify such nouns when they use them in sentences. At the same time, we must take into account that mass nouns are prone to influence in given conditions. This depends on the context of usage and the speaker’s inferred meaning when using a mass noun. For instance, we may have “Four coffees two beers one mineral water!’ he called to the barman” (BNC, 2012). Therefore, it is difficult to use countable nouns as mass nouns. We may use coffees or beers mostly as mass nouns to represent substances or objects, and make them countable nouns by inserting a discrete unit of measurement.
We must also take note that there is a difference between a mass noun and a collective noun. Collective nouns act as categories of countable nouns. However, some users may use a collective noun to denote a mass noun.
The basic assumption is that mass nouns do not provide us with a way to count substances or objects. For instance, beer and coffee are mass nouns and denote substances. We can create a countable noun of a beer using a mass-to-count shift. This means serving beer or a type of beer. In this context, shifting brings confusion when it comes to identifying the noun we are referring to in a given context. In addition, we can show that only mass nouns are possible in the given context. On the other hand, we remove the shifted part in interpretation to show that only countable nouns are possible. In this regard, we must note that there are circumstances where we have the impossibility of mass nouns unless a mass-to-count shift has occurred. We note that there are impossible forms of mass nouns, e.g. “a coffee” unless we shift to countable interpretation. Therefore, the shifting process is responsible for creating plural forms such as coffees and beers.
Appendix (from BNC, 2012)
“Two beers later they shake on the deal and stagger out of the Captain’s Cabin”.
“All the beers are full mash”.
“All of these may vary from brew to brew, leading to beers with variable bitterness”.
“Jenny bought two coffees and two buns and we went and sat down.
“The Most Popular Coffees”
Biber D., Leech, G. and Conrad, S. (2002). Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Cambridge: Longman.
British National Corpus (BNC) (2012). British National Corpus. Retrieved from http://www.natcorp.ox.ac.uk/
Sharvy, R. (1978). Maybe English Has No Count Nouns: Notes on Chinese Semantics. Studies in Language, 2 (1), 607–624.