Mass nouns. What you need to know.

A little while back somebody posed a question – what is the plural for ‘lego’ . It’s not obvious – ‘legos’? I thought maybe it was a mass noun.

Mass nouns are English constructions where singular and plural are the same word. They tend to evolve. ‘Data’ is a plural, for which the singular is datum. But these days we usually refer to ‘a point of data’ – in other words, it has become a mass noun. So is ‘agenda’. An ‘agenda’ with one item on it is, technically, an ‘agendum’.

In New Zealand, mass nouns are more common than elsewhere because in Maori – one of the two official languages – nouns are always both singular and plural, and that carries through when the words are inserted into English.

Normally we make a noun into a plural by adding –s, which causes all kinds of conniptions with ‘goods’. In the economic sense, ‘goods’ is singular – you cannot have ‘a good’ in the sense of a single object or service, but that doesn’t stop it being used that way by people who know no better. Another funny one is ‘salt’. We talk about ‘grains of salt’, which is a mass noun in the sense of referring to a single sort of salt. But if we have (say) sodium chloride, calcium chloride and perhaps potassium iodide, then they are, collectively, ‘salts’.

The longest mass noun I’ve seen is hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, an invented phobia meaning fear of long words. And no, I didn’t make that up, it appears here.

So it seems sort of apt to talk about ‘one lego’ or ‘many lego’. Maybe. What do you think?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2011


4 thoughts on “Mass nouns. What you need to know.

  1. One sheep, many sheep. However, let’s throw a spanner in the works (since you enticed me here :wink:) Lego is actually a brand name. So Bev is on the right track – one actually buys tow building blocks of the Lego brand.

    The question is, therefore, can brand names be plural? Once they move into the vernacular, yes. The best example is fridge, from Frigidaire. Or was it from refrigerator? Esky and eskies.

    English is a funny language.

    BTW – ex-Kiwi here

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