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Austin's Editing Marks

This is a guide to the symbols I use when marking up your writing assignments. Each symbol stands for a particular kind of error. By marking the types of errors you're making, my aim is to help you identify the areas on which you need to focus to improve the accuracy of your written English.

Important: When I mark up your assignments, I will not necessarily mark every single error you make. Instead, I will mark those errors that seem to occur most frequently in your writing, or those that cause the greatest difficulties for the reader.

When looking over my feedback on your writing, look for patterns. Which symbols do you see most often on your writing? Make sure you understand that particular category of error (ask me if you're unclear!) and in your future writing, focus on that specific issue.

Note: This guide is a work in progress. As I gather more examples I will add them to this guide, and add more detailed descriptions as well. If you want know more about a type of error I haven't documented very extensively, please ask me!

Standard editing marks

These are marks and symbols that are widely used in the English-speaking world when editing documents. I use them when marking up your papers, and you may well see other teachers using them as well.

Austin's special editing marks

These are symbols and abbreviations that I've invented. You won't necessarily see other people using these marks.

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.

Mass nouns

A mass noun is what it sounds like: a big mass. Consider the following nouns:

  • water
  • smoke
  • sand
  • music
  • happiness
  • stuff

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")

Count nouns

A count noun is what it sounds like: a noun that can be counted. Consider the following nouns:

  • table 
  • chair
  • student
  • injury
  • promise
  • burden

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:

  • 一张桌子
  • 一把椅子
  • 一个学生
  • 一杯水
  • 一缕烟
  • 一部曲子

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?

  1. [X]s are good for you
  2. [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:

  • experience
  • language
  • friendship
  • family
  • beauty
  • light 
  • quality
  • motivation


(hover your cursor over the sentences to see the correct expressions)

. . . without exact mathematical concept s      (concept is only a count noun)

. . . without exact mathematical concepts     (concept is only a count noun)

. . . contribute to the protection of language s  like Welsh      OR        . . .      of  a  language like Welsh  (language can be both a count noun and a mass noun, but they mean different things)

. . . contribute to the protection of languages like Welsh     OR   . . . of a language like Welsh

(language can be both a count noun and a mass noun, but they mean different things)

. . . not only has  a  beautiful tone      OR      has beautiful tone s      (tone is only a count noun)  . . . also carries a lot of  culture      (culture can be both mass and count, but means differents things)

. . . not only has a beautiful tone     OR     has beautiful tones     (tone is only a count noun)

. . . also carries a lot of culture     (culture can be both mass and count, but means differents things)

. . . Welsh announcement s  [on] the university campus . . . even leaflet s  in Welsh.  (announcement and leaflet can only be count nouns)

. . . Welsh announcements [on] the university campus . . . even leaflets in Welsh.

(announcement and leaflet can only be count nouns)

. . . which did  research  about . . .      (research is only a mass noun)

. . . which did research about . . .      (research is only a mass noun)

Austin Woerner