Recognizing Words With No Plural Forms

I am working with an executive who speaks English as a second language, with Chinese as her first language. She was very surprised to learn that the words information, knowledge, and jewelry have no plural forms.

Would you join me in making a list of such words for her? I have started the list below, and I would appreciate your additions. Not one of my reference books has a list of nouns without plural forms. [Note added on January 20: Dala Beld suggested Googling "list uncountable nouns English," which gave me several lengthy lists. Thanks, Dala.]

These are called "mass nouns." I call them nouns that do not have a plural form in English.

Here is my list so far:

furniture
information
knowledge
jewelry
homework
marketing

livestock
education
courage
bravery
cowardice
greed

clarity
honesty
evidence
insurance
mud
weather
racism
sexism
patriotism (and the other –ism words)

I am certain my client will be grateful for your help, and so will I.  Ah–that statement made me think of another word: gratefulness!

Lynn
Syntax Training

59 COMMENTS

  1. No offense. I think the beginning sentence of this article would be better if the latter half were cut out, unless such problem only harasses people from China.

  2. Lynne, all of the words you mention are among those that most English as a second language (ESL)textbooks call uncountable (or non-count) nouns. You can locate lists of them by Googling “list uncountable nouns English.” The matter is further complicated by nouns, such as stone, which can be either countable or uncountable!

    I hope that I don´t spoil the fun by suggesting the ready-made lists!

  3. Penny and Mai, thanks for your additions to the list.

    Dala, thank you for your wise, practical counsel. I did as you suggested and indeed found ready-made lists. So I will suggest those to my client. The only slight problem with the ready-made list is that at least 10 percent of the nouns can also be plural in certain contexts–for example, accommodations, works, experiences, foods.

    Sapphire, why would the sentence be better without the mention that my client speaks Chinese? Or is it the sentence structure that concerns you?

    Thanks to all.

    Lynn

  4. Here’s where my literary/poetic sensibilities come up against a desire to regulate language. It isn’t unreasonable to say “knowledges,” as in Peter Worsley’s “Knowledges: Culture, Counterculture, Subculture” or Laurel Brake’s “Subjugated Knowledges: Journalism, Gender, and Literature in the 19Th Century.” We have to remember that language is a living thing; grammar can describe it, but not enslave it.

  5. Crew (a collective noun). Scenery.

    Is it gratefulness or gratitude?

    The Concise Oxford Dictionary lists gratefulness as obsolete.

  6. Is it really accurate to say that mass nouns are nouns without a plural form. Or, could you say that these are nouns which have both a singular and a plural form. But one where the usual rules of plural noun formation don’t apply. It would seem, therefore,that the mass noun contains within itself the understanding that the noun may mean one of an item or more than one. “Insurance” is “insurance” in either the singular or the plural.

  7. Thanks, everyone, for your input. I appreciate all the comments.

    I need to clarify that mass nouns are nouns without a plural form. So “moose,” “sheep,” and “shrimp” are actually not mass nouns. All those words can be used as both singular and plural forms:

    –The moose is/are moving south.
    –The sheep is/are ready to be sheared.
    –The shrimp is/are delicious.

    Regarding “shrimp,” my dictionaries offer both “shrimp” and “shrimps” as plurals, so it is more complicated than we may have thought.

    “Crew,” a collective noun, does have a plural:

    –The crews are competing for the prize.

    Yes, “scenery” is an example of a mass noun.

    Jerry, mass nouns cannot be used with plural verbs. We cannot say “The insurance are” or “The equipment were.” The words are singular in form even though a word like “jewelry” may include many pieces of jewelry. I believe you are making a similar point.

    Thank you all for taking the time to share your ideas. Yes, English is fun.

    Lynn

  8. R. Selvaraju, thanks for asking about “gratefulness.” It appears in both of my current U.S. dictionaries. It also appears in my “Canadian Oxford Dictionary.” Interestingly, in that volume I see in brackets information about the etymology of the word, which includes the word “obsolete.” That word applies to “grate,” which is now obsolete as an adjective.

    You may want to see whether “Concise Oxford” is using the same approach, with the etymology in brackets.

    Lynn

  9. Hi, Sandy. Please don’t get mad about “staffs.” If you hear it, people may be intending the possessive form: “The staff’s preference is to leave early.”

    But the word “staff” meaning “team members” or “employees” does have a plural form: “The two staffs met to discuss how they would work together.”

    For “initiative” I assume you are thinking of the initiative that is a characteristic, as in “She takes initiative.” You are correct in objecting to a plural form of that usage.

    However, when “initiative” means “project,” it does have a plural form: “The two initiatives have not been included in the budget.”

    It’s too bad that you have to hear incorrect plurals. Is there an opportunity for you to teach people the correct words?

    Lynn

  10. Hi, Preshita. Thanks for your suggestions. Those are not actually nouns without a plural form. Those are nouns whose plural form is the same as its singular form.

    Examples: One deer, two deer. One trout, two trout.

    But we can’t say two furnitures or two informations.

    I hope that makes sense.

    Lynn

  11. Although some have no plural form as a single word, its plural form can be expressed in two words, ex. Pieces of evidence, school of fish

  12. Hi, Joey. I believe you are pointing out other words without plurals. Am I correct?

    Actually both “breads” and “works” can be plural:

    “These breads sell well.”
    “These works of art take my breath away.”

    However, “luck” does not have a plural. Good one!

    Lynn

  13. I know I’m supposed to be helping you here but I’m afraid I have nothing to contribute.

    I do have a question though – I have always used staves as the plural of staff, is this incorrect or is it a case of having two options ?

  14. Hi, Lynn. Thank you for the reply; My “Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary” only lists staffs as a plural, however it also lists stave as an alternative to staff in certain situations.

  15. I would like to ask if one is referring to two or more members of an Executive, is in incorrect to say “executives”?

  16. Someone left a comment, which I accidentally deleted, with these suggestions:

    deer cattle swine salmon

    These examples are all plural forms (and singular too except for “cattle”), so they do not fit the category of words with no plural form.

    Lynn

  17. Hmmm. I don’t think of training as a collective noun such as “jury” (a group of jurors), “family” (a group of closely related people), or “team.” “Training” is not necessarily a group.

    However, I do know several corporate trainers who use “trainings” as a plural, meaning “training sessions.” I have never liked that use.

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    Lynn

  18. This is a very informative thread! Also I stumbled-upon these words – alms, amends, cattle, clothes, doldrums, ides, pants, pliers, scissors, shorts, smithereens, and trousers – which are all plural which have no singular form.

  19. I’m a Chinese with “Chinese as my first language” and I don’t think that this statement (“I am working with an executive who speaks English as a second language, with Chinese as her first language.”) is offensive to me. This is a common mistake to most of Chinese like me. Appreciate your effort clarifying it to people who have same problem as me.
    (I’m sorry for my broken English)

    What about “business” and “food”?
    As I know, food doesn’t has plural but many people telling me foods. I would like to know which is the correct one?

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