MM: Countable Nouns

Language changes. Distinctions that were once important fade, becoming esoteric, then vanishing. Many people don’t notice such losses. Others do notice. Complaints about the current sad state of writing or the language are no new thing. For instance, Harvard started its expository writing program in 1897 because faculty members were so distressed at their students’ abysmal writing. One of their complaints: students seemed unable to keep straight the distinction between will and shall. The faculty was trying to hold back the tide on that one: the will/shall  distinction has since been lost to American English. And a hundred years from now, the who/whom distinction will probably have gone the same way.

This post is about another fading distinction: that between adjectives appropriate for “countable” and “uncountable” nouns. Have you noticed that many supermarkets have changed the signs on their express lanes to read “10 items or fewer,” rather than “10 items or less”? That’s because the pedants were getting on their cases. You see, items are countable, and you use fewer with countable nouns. Less is for uncountable things, such as rice. (Tip: Uncountable nouns generally don’t have a separate plural form — rice, flour, sand, air, gasoline, music, advice, etc.)

So, let’s take beans as our countable noun and rice as our uncountable one:

This burrito is too big! I’d like less rice and fewer beans.

This burrito has a greater amount of rice and a greater number of beans.

I don’t have many beans or much rice. I need to go shopping!

The less/fewer distinction is the most abused, but you’ll also see amount attached to countable nouns. The linguistic trend seems to be the replacement of countable with uncountable forms. In a hundred years, fewer and number might sound precious or archaic, as shall does to modern American speakers. But for now, I think the distinction still holds. By a single, countable thread.

16 thoughts on “MM: Countable Nouns

  1. I can say that there is something about the “fewer” and “less” situation that bothers me. It sounds wrong to my ear and sometimes I do blurt out a correction, and I wish I hadn’t. I appreciate that English is a living language and I love that it grows and changes. It may be one of the most dynamic languages ever known. It is interesting, if one is watching, to see it change. For instance, adverbs. We are losing the “ly”. It is only a matter of a decade or less (not fewer — even though each year is an individual element0 until the “ly” indication is gone altogether.

    Still when in the checkout line, or listening to my kids, the “fewer” “less” thing – annoys me.

    • I think this is the healthiest attitude to have, D.A. Trying to resist is pointless — better to appreciate the language’s dynamism since that change will just steamroll on over you anyway.

      There does seem to be a big delay between changes to the spoken and the written language. I hear the dropped -ly all the time in spoken language, but I’ve yet to encounter it much in writing. I think “Do it quickly” will be with us in writing long after “Do it quick” is the de facto spoken form.

      Yeah, “less” and “amount,” misused, still sound terrible to my ear. Then again, so do “disinterested” and “nauseous,” so I’m a bit of a stick in the mud :)

  2. There’s a bunch of linguistic butchering going on these days. I routinely hear people saying things like “let me think on that” instead of “let me think about that”. Doesn’t bother me on message boards or in casual conversation, but in situations where a little formality is called for, it’s like someone scratching the proverbial chalkboard.

    • Hmm … is “thinking on” a dialectism? I think of it as a form from southern U.S. English, maybe ported over from “praying on”?

      • Sounds right. It’s right up there with “I’d like to speak to that” instead of “I’d like to speak about that.” or “I’d like to address that.” It’s all lazy English. Might be contractions of different sentences people have heard. Might be a contraction of “I’d like to speak about that.” and “I’d like to make a poit that gets to the heart of that” (okay, bad example, but you know what I mean)

        • Yeah. On the other hand, English prepositions are so idiomatic. I wouldn’t be surprised if different regional Englishes paired verbs and prepositions differently. What bugs me more is the habit of verbalizing nouns and adjectives. Sometimes the products are useful — you know, like “verbalize” :) — but sometimes they’re awful. For instance, I can’t see a single reason to use the word “utilize.” Ever.

          • Hmm, I’m thinking. I was gonna say “Our company utilizes overseas assets, buying power, and worldwide locations to bring the customer the best service.” but it really would be better as “leverages its” Yeah.

              • Do you really “use” worldwide locations? You own them. You use their facilities or capabilities, but not necessarily the location itself, since that’s kinda limited to position. If you utilize those locations, it’s the same thing. That’s why it doesn’t work either way.

                • Yeah, maybe “leverage” is better. If you wanted to stick with “use,” I think you could: “location” is a synecdoche for the whole business occupying the spot, I think.

      • I believe you’re right, Becca. “Thinking on” most likely has roots from southern U.S. English. I grew up in the south, where “thinking on” is akin to “studying on.” The usage for both typically means to ponder deeply (notice the –ly?), as one would when praying.

  3. I’m probably going to have to weigh in on this one on my blog; the whole “countable/uncountable” thing is a mid twentieth century invention, which originally tried to explain why in some parts of the world there was a clear distinction between how quantitative comparators were used in many languages, not just English. As is often the case with these things, educators got hold of the idea and consciously created a rule out of it. A rule that continues to be ignored by English speaking people across the world who have—or have not—used less and fewer interchangeably for generations.

    As the same thing applies to absolute quantifiers (much, many), there seems to have been stronger grounds for inferring a rule, but throughout the nineteenth century much and many were used as vague quantifiers, which allowed such statements as “Much of those men are in agreement with me.”

    I have lists and lists of these “non-rules” as I call them. I don’t like to talk about them as they cause some people to get het-up. Which I why I put this in a comment on your blog and not a post on mine, Becca ;P

    • Heh, heh. People do love their rules, Harry! I wasn’t aware that the un/countable distinction was of such extremely recent invention … that’s fascinating. Mid-twentieth century! I had no idea. That’s recent enough that it’s probably traceable to an individual. Do you happen to know who came up with it?

      One of the things that fascinates me about language is its mixture of forcible shaping and random change over time. The latter is generally far more powerful, but every so often the former catches on and sticks. Think of the spelling changes between U.S. and British English, for instance. They are, as I understand it, applied rather than organic, and yet they’ve caught on like gangbusters in U.S. English. Perhaps that’s because they are artificial examples of the typical direction or organic change, which is toward simplification.

      But here’s the thing — when it comes right down to it, it doesn’t really matter where language “rules” come from. If they have force, then you’d better know them, whether they’re organic or applied. That doesn’t mean you can’t break them — you sure can. Some of the artificial rules that have caught on are actually rather detrimental, such as the no-split-verbs thing. A split infinitive is something up with which I will not put, and all that. But breaking them should be a conscious decision, not a matter of cluelessness. That way you’ll be able to apply them “correctly” when a given audience expects you to.

      • You can show off needlessly by pointing out that (in English at least) there is no such thing as a split infinitive, only a split supine. Or you could, if many people hadn’t started referring to the infinitive as the “bare infinitive” and the supine as the “full infinitive. I frequently split infinitives; for a while it was one of those cases where it was permitted if it was obvious that you knew you were doing it. I hope it is becoming something that is acceptable to do in ignorance.

        • I hope so too, Harry. It’s one of the sillier rules. Occasionally I notice a split verb and think the writer has clogged things up and deprived her verb of a bit of its power, but usually splitting is just the most natural-sounding syntactical form for that particular utterance.

          You totally sent me to Wikipedia with the “supine” thing, by the way. Even in my (not very successful) study of Latin, I never encountered the term. Kudos! :)

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