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Jackson Pollock dropped paints on canvas seemingly at random. (Source)

I have always thought the noun "paint" is uncountable when referring to color/colored liquid/solid pigment. But the above sentence uses it as a count noun in this sense. I thought it is only countable when meaning different paint tubes.

The Macmillan Dictionary seems to confirm my guess, suggesting that "paint" is only a count noun in the meaning a set of small blocks or tubes containing paint of different colors that you use for making pictures. Can "paint" be countable when used in the sense of "color" or "pigment"? What is the difference between "paint" as a mass noun and as a count noun?

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Many “uncountable” nouns can be used in a "countable form" when they refer to a broader meaning. The notion that using an s to pluralize an uncountable noun must be an error is a trap.

Words like waters, rices, sands, and oxygens are valid plural forms, although some of them are quite rare because you would only use them in unusual contexts. For example, a scientific textbook reads:

This ratio is variable since two types of O may be distinguished in the silicate anions: bridging oxygens and non-bridging oxygens.

I’m reminded of a debate that raged over at ELU some years ago about the plural of equipment. The accepted answer was downvoted and drew more than 30 comments and has since been deleted; it read:

Equipment can be both singular and plural. The word equipments is wrong/ungrammatical, though its use is prevalent.

Fact is, the use of equipments is uncommon, not prevalent, and it’s not necessarily wrong or ungrammatical in those usages.

You’ve uncovered an excellent example with the word paints. Most of the time, paint can be used to even when referring to a plural. For example, if I go to the store and buy a gallon of yellow paint and a gallon of red paint, I would probably say:

I bought paint today.

(not, “I bought paints today.”)

But there is nothing wrong with me saying:

There are many paints at the paint store.

In that case, I might be talking about how there are oil-based paints and water-based paints, latex paints and acrylic paints, matte paints and glossy paints, interior paints and exterior paints, etc.

I think what you say about Macmillan is on the right track, but off just a little bit:

The Macmillan Dictionary seems to confirm my guess, suggesting that "paint" is only a count noun in the meaning a set of small blocks or tubes containing paint of different colors that you use for making pictures. [emphasis added]

I think the word “only” is misplaced there; I think a better way to phrase it would be:

The Macmillan Dictionary seems to confirm my guess, suggesting that "paint" is a count noun in contexts such as a set of small blocks or tubes containing paint of different colors that you use for making pictures.

It isn’t practical for a dictionary to list every sense of how a word can be used; the best dictionaries can do is provide a suite of general examples.

Your original sentence could probably be written either way; I would consider both grammatically correct:

  • Jackson Pollock dropped paints on canvas seemingly at random.
  • Jackson Pollock dropped paint on canvas seemingly at random.

However, the array of paint on a Pollock canvas is so widely varied, from an art perspective, it almost seems a shame to use the singular. enter image description here

  • Thank you for this detailed, informative answer! There are points that I don't fully grasp but will spend a lot of time on. – Eddie Kal Jun 30 '18 at 13:56
  • English can use the same word to talk about the type of a thing in addition to a thing itself. If X is a type/kind of something, and you want to talk about multiple types/kinds of X, then X is countable. I bought several paints = I bought several types/kinds of paint - I used all the paint on the side of the house - there was only 1 type/kind of paint used. – LawrenceC Jun 30 '18 at 22:36
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You're correct. This is a rather unconventional use of paints which is intended to suggest the set of small tubes of paint that the dictionary mentions. The basic meaning is Jackson Pollock dropped different colors of paint on canvas seemingly at random. The use of paints suggests the source of the different colors, as well as the fact that he used different colors. If the sentence used paint instead of paints it would include the meaning of using a single bucket of paint.

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