linguist • writer • editor • lecturer • broadcaster
[Thursday 03 January, 2013]
What’s the difference between music and a vacuum-cleaner? Tricky question? Here’s a clue. I’m thinking about the words (they’re both nouns), not the things they refer to. So, start playing about with their grammar, and see what happens.
- Can you put the word a before both of them? No. You can have it before vacuum-cleaner, but not before music: you can’t say *a music.
- Can you turn both words into the plural? Can you say vacuum-cleaners? Yes. *Musics? Definitely not.
- Can you use the words without having any article at all? Can you say I like music? Of course. what about I like vacuum-cleaner? No - you’d sound like a Martian who’s not very good at English.
- Can you use the word some in front of them? I want to hear some music? No problem. I’d like some vacuum-cleaner? No way.
I could go on, but you’ve probably got the point. Vacuum-cleaner and music are different types of noun. There are thousands of nouns like vacuum-cleaner: they all take a, have plurals, can’t be used on their own, and can’t go with some. Test out box, telephone, and kiosk, for instance. Likewise there are thousands of nouns like music, which do the opposite. They can’t take a, they don’t have plurals, they can be used on their own, and they can go with some. Test information, happiness, and mud, for instance. Grammarians usually call nouns like vacuum-cleaner count or countable nouns. They call nouns like music noncount nouns, uncountable nouns, or mass nouns.
The name suggest that you can count the first group of nouns and that you can’t count the second group. This seems to make sense. You can say one book, two books, three books, and so on, and you can’t say *one music, two musics, three musics. But actually, it’s a more complex matter than the names suggest. In particular, some nouns can be used either in a count or a noncount-way, depending on what you mean. Take coffee, for example. Coffee tastes wonderful someone might say - and, going into a shop, I’d like some coffee, please. So far, so good. Just like music. But later in the day, going into a snack bar, you might just as easily say, Two coffees, please or I’d like a coffee! Just like vacuum-cleaner. There are lots of nouns that lead a double life, when we want them to. For instance, would you like some cake for tea? Or two teas and a cake?
(Do you know why there’s an asterisk in front of *a music and the other examples? If you don’t, click here.)
Related notions: noun, number

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