Thursday, December 16, 2010

Lies We Tell Our Students: Countability of Nouns

This is the first post in a series that I call "Lies We Tell Our Students".  I am thinking specifically of misinformation that ESL/EFL teachers often give to their ESL/EFL students.  Since I have taught ESL for multiple years and have come up against these issues again and again, I bring them up in the hope that other teachers (and therefore students) will benefit.

First let me qualify the title: I am pretty sure that most teacher who teach the myths about English that I am addressing in this series of posts do not believe that they are false.  And those who do are probably teaching their students a simplified rule for the purpose of making it easier to understand.  So the word "lies" is more for dramatic purposes than for accuracy.

Now, on to countability of nouns.

Pretty much all grammar books that I've ever seen claim that nouns in English come in two classes: count (countable) and noncount (uncountable).  Count nouns can be either singular or plural, and in singular form take an indefinite article sometimes.  Noncount nouns occur only in singular form and cannot take indefinite articles.  Here are some examples (the asterisk indicates something is wrong in the sentence):

My living room has a lot of furniture (noncount).
*My living room has many furnitures (count).
*This burrito has a lot of bean (noncount).
This burrito has a lot of beans (count).

In other words, there seems to be a pattern to the way certain nouns are used, and it appears that some nouns can be used in some contexts and other nouns can be used in other contexts.

The way to decide between these types of nouns is usually explained in terms of countability: items that come in discrete, individual units are count nouns, while items that come in abstract masses are noncount.

Except it's not true.

Problem 1: It appears that any noun can be used as count or noncount.

I have never found a noun that I couldn't get to work as count or noncount, with the correct context.  Let's take the example of furniture that I used above.  It works well as a noncount in this context:

My living room has a lot of furniture.  (Meaning: I have a desk, a chair, an armoire, a sofa, etc.)

And in the example above, using it as count doesn't seem right:

*My living room has many furnitures.  (Same meaning).

But what if I provided a different context; could I get it to work as count then?

The Museum of French Design offers several examples of famous French furnitures, such as Postmodern Furniture and Furniture a la Carte. (Meaning: I am talking about styles of furniture rather than individual pieces of furniture.)

How about another example?  This time, a noun that is usually considered count?

There are two dogs on my street. (count, meaning individual animals)

Can I use it as noncount?  How about this?

I really liked this soup, until I found out it was made of dog. (noncount, meaning dog meat)

Another example: ice is usually considered to be noncount, but one time I heard a sentence like the following on a science program:

Pluto is composed of methane and water ices.

I have never found an example of a noun that I couldn't use as both count and noncount, in the right context.

Problem 2: The way to distinguish count from noncount is hazy at best.

Like I said above, typically ESL students are instructed to distinguish count nouns from noncount nouns by whether the thing comes in discrete units.  Well this turns out to be not very helpful.  Sure, bean, a typical count noun, comes in small units, but so does rice, a typical noncount noun.  And when you consider ice as a count or noncount noun, should we think of it as the substance that comes in large sheets in Antarctica, or the thing that comes in little square cubes in my drink at the restaurant?  And what about when something like the following happens:

Me: I would like some water, please. (noncount use).
My Friend: Could I also have some water? (noncount use)
Waiter: No problem.  Two waters. (count use)

So even if we tell our students that the "rule" doesn't work and they just have to memorize which nouns are count and which are noncount, what about nouns like "water" that appear to be both?

My proposal: the count/noncount distinction does not exist.  Any noun can be used as count/noncount.  We should find something more helpful to teach our students.

I did not come up with this idea all by myself.  I had the privilege of hearing a talk some years ago by Kathrin Koslicki, whose dissertation deals with this topic.  Koslicki's proposal, as I understand it, is that there are three ways to use nouns: count, noncount, and plural.  Each of these three types of noun use has a different meaning.

Unfortunately, my training in semantics isn't deep enough to allow me to fully understand Koslicki's dissertation and/or the subsequent article she published on the topic, but I have found the concept very helpful in my teaching.

In the grammar class I taught this semester,  my students and I listed various nouns in count and noncount forms and defined them (pictures were very helpful in this discussion).  The list looked something like this:
Count                        Noncount

An egg                       Egg
(picture of an egg)      (picture of egg salad)

A water                     Water
(a glass of water)        (waterfall)

Histories                    History

and so on.  By listing many examples and showing the differences in their meanings, the students were able to induce the semantic differences between count and noncount uses of various words.  I think in the future these could even be listed as a set of discrete semantic principles.  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Koslicki has already detailed these semantic differences in her dissertation.  With some modification we teachers should be able to convert them to some principles that students can use to decide how to use a certain noun in a certain semantic context.

Notice that, when I taught my students about this concept this semester, I did not distinguish between singular and plural uses of count nouns like Koslicki does.  I have not tested whether it is feasible to try to convince students that singular and plural are two completely different uses of the same noun (even though I like Koslicki's argument that they are).  But I think that teaching students that any noun can be used in different use contexts empowers them.  They can use this knowledge to analyze the language they actually see and hear, and it certainly must be able to help them more than the current "rules" they are usually taught.

I am interested to read your comments and additions to what I have presented here.

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