Early on, when studying English, you learn the word “the news”. It then seems logical that one story would be “a new”. Unfortunately, we can’t say that. Here’s why.
First, we need to know what a mass noun is. What’s the difference between “a chair”, “a word” and “a sand”? Well, we know what “a chair” or “a word” is, but what is “a sand”? A single grain? When we talk about “the sand” on the beach, we mean more than one grain! In English grammar, there are some nouns we can count, like chairs or words (although counting words is actually quite tricky!) and other nouns we can’t count, like sand. For this reason we also call the two types countable and uncountable nouns. You have learnt about this, it’s the reason we use “how many” with some words and “how much” with others. “How many chairs?”, but “how much sand?”. “Too many people”, but “too much water”.
Okay. So far, so good (por ahora todo bien), but some of the words that are mass nouns in English might be a bit surprising. “Work”, “paper”, “news”. Those are all countable in Spanish and Catalan. “Clothing”, “jewellery”, “research”, “luggage”. There’s lots of these words. “Furniture”, “information”, “advice”. Now you understand “some advice”, not “an advice” in the title of this post! If we use these with, for example, a definite article, there’s no problem: “Did you hear the news?” or “There’s no new information.”. These sentences are fine. It is when we want to use an indefinite article that we have to be careful. “I have an advice for you” is wrong, we need to give a quantity. There are obviously different options for this quantity. Think of sand: you could have a grain of sand, a handful of sand, etc. With a lot of mass nouns, we can just say “some”: “some sand”, “some advice”. So, for the above sentence, it would have been correct to say “I have some advice for you”. With some mass nouns, we can also say “a piece of”: “I have a piece of advice for you”. This doesn’t work for all mass nouns though! In fact, we probably wouldn’t say “a piece of sand”. However it does work for the other mass nouns I listed above. “A piece of work”, “a piece of paper” and, yes, “a piece of news”.
We’ll stop there for today. Just below here is a short gap-fill exercise to practise these words. If you want to try writing some sentences of your own in the comments, I will help you correct them. I’ll write another post soon with some more information (see, “some… information”!) on mass nouns. If you want to know when I publish that, please click the “Follow”/”Seguir” button at the bottom-right of this page.
Thanks for reading!
Fill in the gaps in the following sentences with an appropriate mass noun:
- I’ve got two pieces of ______ to finish for tomorrow.
- So, there’s some good ______, and some bad ______.
- I’m looking for some ______ on mass nouns.
- She bought him a piece of ______ for his birthday: a new ring.
- He bought her a piece of ______ for her birthday: a new jumper.
- How many pieces of ______ do you want to check in?
- There was a single piece of ______ in the room: a wardrobe with a broken door.
- Wait, I need something to write it down on, sorry. Let me find a piece of ______.
- They’ve just published a new piece of ______ about black holes.
(Some of the sentences might have other possible answers – post them in the comments if you think of any!)
1. work/homework 2. news (both gaps) 3. information 4. jewellery (US spelling is jewelry) 5. clothing 6. luggage 7. furniture 8. paper 9. research