m/c (mass noun / count noun confusion)
In English, there are two types of nouns: mass nouns 不可数名词 (sometimes also called "un-count nouns" or "non-count nouns") and count nouns 可数名词.
If you see this mark on your paper, it means that you're using a mass noun as a count noun, or vice versa.
A mass noun is what it sounds like: a big mass. Consider the following nouns:
When we use a mass noun, we must measure it using a unit noun 单位名词 (similar to measures word 量词 in Chinese). It is never plural. For example:
- a cup of water
- (NOT “a water" or "waters")
- a puff of smoke
- (NOT "a smoke" or "smokes")
- a grain of sand
- (NOT "a sand" or "sands")
- a piece of music
- (NOT ”a music" or "musics")
- a lot of happiness
- (NOT "a happiness" or "happinesses")
- a pile of stuff
- (NOT “a stuff" or "stuffs")
A count noun is what it sounds like: a noun that can be counted. Consider the following nouns:
These nouns always have a determiner 限定词 in front of them (a little word like "a," "the," "this," "that," "my," "his," etc.) or are plural. They are never singular without a determiner. For example:
- a table, the table, her table ~ or tables
- (NOT I need table)
- a chair, the chair, his chair ~ or chairs
- (NOT Where is chair?)
- a student, the student, that student ~ or students
- (NOT student is hardworking)
- an injury, the injury, his injury ~ or injuries
- (NOT he suffered injury)
- a promise, the promise, that promise ~ or promises
- (NOT she broke promise)
- a burden, the burden, her burden ~ or burdens
- (NOT they have a lot of burden)
Note: a count noun can have both a determiner and be plural. For example: the tables, the students, their injuries, my promises, her burdens, etc.
English nouns vs. Chinese nouns
Now consider Chinese nouns. Notice that ALL Chinese nouns function the way mass nouns do in English. They ALL need a unit noun 单位名词 / measure word 量词. For example:
So when speaking/writing English, the challenge from a Chinese speaker's perspective is to understand which nouns are count nouns and which nouns are mass nouns.
When you're not sure, use what I call the "Popeye Test": (Popeye is the English name for 大力水手)
The Popeye Test
Which sounds more natural to say?
- [X]s are good for you
- [X] is good for you
If it's 1., then it's a count noun. If it's 2., it's a mass noun.
Try it with these:
water - smoke - noodle - flower - sleep - dream - bottle - injury - experience - technology - dog - friendship - smile - sand - basketball - soda - pebble - gentleness - happiness - song - student - freedom - hour - year - love - music - burden
Nouns that are both mass and count
However, if you do this you will soon find that some nouns can function as both a mass noun and a count noun!!!
Consider the word "experience." Which is correct to say: "experience is good for you" or "experiences are good for you"?
The answer is: both are correct! However, the meaning is not the same. In the phrase "experience is good for you," "experience" means 经验. But in the phrase "experiences are good for you," "experiences" means 经历. So whether you are using a noun as a count noun or a mass noun can have a very significant effect on the meaning.
Examples of nouns that mean something different when used as a mass noun vs. a count noun:
(hover your cursor over the sentences to see the correct expressions)