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According to the Oxford Learner's Dictionary, "life" can be a countable and uncountable noun.

The floods caused a massive loss of life
Hundreds of lives were threatened

But if we wanted to say "life" in general, which one sounds right or are they both grammatically correct?

  1. life is short
    or
  2. lives are short.
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    "Life is short" sounds more natural since the word is being used as an abstract noun. "Lives are short" sounds wrong, What lives are being referred to? "Our lives are short" makes more sense. – Mick Sep 23 '16 at 11:38
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    Neither sound wrong, exactly. But "life is short" is a very common phrase in American English, and is probably better suited to your purpose. – Jeremy Nottingham Sep 23 '16 at 11:39
  • @MickSharpe, plural countable noun expresses things in general. Ex, "Books are good" (any book or all books are good. – Tom Sep 23 '16 at 11:58
  • I wouldn't say either of them. Whose life? And of uncountable, how can you uniformly quantify all lives. I guess we need to learn done statistics and incorporate that into our mindframe. Thank you, for your thought. – Jack Maddington Sep 23 '16 at 15:40
  • This is not opinion based. There is a demonstrable difference between talking about 'life' as a concept (mass noun) and talking about plural instances of the count noun 'life', as the concept of life 'instantiated' in individual lives. Cf my answer. – Alan Carmack Sep 23 '16 at 20:32
10

To talk about life in general, life is considered a mass noun. That is to say, to talk about life as a concept, we say life in general; In general, life is short. This very usage is what makes life here a mass noun. Compare Death is inevitable.

However, we can also talk about lives in general. This talks about multiple instances of the singlular count noun life. For instance, we might say, In war, lives are cheap. Here the stress is on individual lives. But you could also In war, life is cheap, with life as a concept.

You could also say, in general, deaths are inevitable, in the medical profession

For 'types' of mass nouns, see this resource by the University of Washington.

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    But physics is an uncountable noun, I think? – Damkerng T. Sep 23 '16 at 12:11
  • @DamkerngT Okay, I will give that to you for this usage (see included link). But it, like just about any noun, can be used as a count noun. – Alan Carmack Sep 23 '16 at 12:16
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    Yes @Tom but I'm giving you the answer as to which version is better if you are taking about life in general. Note my previous sentence; I did not say lives in general. – Alan Carmack Sep 23 '16 at 12:30
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    Of course, either version could be correct. As usual it depends on the context and the speaker's intent. A physician may very prefer to say lives are short. The best answer to your question is that we need more context; but in the most general way, the answer is life is short. – Alan Carmack Sep 23 '16 at 12:32
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    @AlanCarmack I really have no idea (this is the first time I've heard that they're often used as examples of -s singular nouns). Maybe because it's a common mistake or something. I don't know. If it's so, I'd guess that they use the term "singular nouns" loosely, to emphasize that these nouns are used with singular verbs, perhaps. – Damkerng T. Sep 23 '16 at 12:57

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