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I was taught that there are four types of nouns:

  • singular countable: journey, sheep, child

  • plural countable: journeys, sheep, children

  • singular uncountable: travel, water, fruit

  • plural uncountable: groceries, customs, thanks

Also

  • Some words are only used with countable nouns: one, two, three, many, number, few

  • Some words are only used with uncountable nouns: much, little, good/great deal, quantity, amount

Am I right?

What about the word 'cattle'? You can say neither 'three cattle' nor 'much cattle'. (According to Practical English Usage) What type of noun is it?

If it is an uncountable noun why I can say 'many cattle' but not 'much cattle'? Isn't 'many' used only with countable nouns and 'much' only with uncountable nouns?

Also, you might consider 'staff' or 'jeans'. You can say for example 'four staff' but not 'a staff'. (According to Practical English Usage)

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    I believe what I read in Practical English Usage
    – Kyamond
    Nov 4, 2023 at 14:30
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    'Cattle' is a (1) arguably singular-form ('cattles' if it existed would be plural-form) (2) non-count (as you imply, you can't have 3 / 17 ...) cattle (3) plural-verb-mandating ('the cattle are lowing') (4) etically countable (1 bull + 14 cows, say) noun. (1)-(3) are grammatical classifications, (4) a semantic one. // 'Staff' has already been covered on ELU. 'Jeans' is to the best of my knowledge always non-count (*5 jeans), obviously plural form, taking plural agreement, and etically countable (6 pairs of jeans). //// Note that so many nouns are used in both count and non-count contexts... Nov 4, 2023 at 14:40
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    ...that it is almost always better to speak of count (2 coffees, 17 cakes) / non-count (I like coffee / cake) usages. Nov 4, 2023 at 14:40
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    No, it doesn't. What do you mean by "etically countable"?
    – Kyamond
    Nov 4, 2023 at 14:48
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    I couldn't help thinking of the last verse of the Book of Jonah, which in the King James Bible reads And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?_ More modern translations have 'many animals' or 'a lot of livestock'. Nov 4, 2023 at 15:27

2 Answers 2

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There are countable nouns (journey, sheep, child), which have singular forms (given) and plural forms (journeys, sheep, children).

And there are uncountable nouns (travel, water, fruit) which don't have plural forms. Although these words may have plural forms in other, perhaps related, senses. You can talk about "waters" but it means something different to the non-count "water".

There are some countable nouns that are usually or always used in the plural. (jeans, groceries). And there are some oddities (staff, cattle)

It is worth comparing "countable/uncountable" with the genders in other languages. In French, every noun is "masculine" or "feminine". Sometimes you can tell by the meaning of a word which gender it is in, sometimes not. The masculine/feminine system is very mature. Even so there are still some oddities (le/la diesel, le/la casse) "Countable/uncountable" is a gender system that you are seeing being born. There are still lots of oddities.

There are lots of words that can be both countable and non countable, with a subtle difference in meaning (a beer/some beer). There are countable plural words (like jeans) that refer to a countable-singular item, or (like groceries) that refer to a non-count item. There are words like "cattle" which began as a non-count word meaning "property" and then "live property" and then "cows" and so acquired a meaning that was plural, but it's grammar has not really caught up with its meaning. Similarly "staff" is a word that has undergone lots of changes in meaning (stick/pole -> walking stick -> ceremonial walking stick carried by an army officer -> army officer -> army officer who isn't in direct command of troops -> Other people with similar office jobs in hospitals or offices -> the group of people working at a particular office.) When words undergo such extreme changes in meaning, the grammar often doesn't keep up, and the word becomes an oddity.

So the categorisation of nouns into uncountable and countable is useful, but not complete or absolute, and you will have to deal with nouns that don't fit neatly into these categories.

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  • Your closing sentence makes a strong point: some noun categories are on firmer ground than others are in English. So even though all nouns in English have a binary singular-vs-plural grammatical number for purposes of verb agreement, noun properties like countability are not necessarily locked down or binary. We always know the number of any noun but how to produce a noun phrase using noun to represent "the other" number can be unclear, forbidden, or variable between speech communities. Sheep, children, deer, clothing are all easy compared with cattle, clothes, vermin, outskirts, gallows.
    – tchrist
    Nov 4, 2023 at 17:51
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    This: "And there are uncountable nouns (travel, water, fruit) which don't have plural forms." is not true. The waters of the two rivers. My travels in the East. The fruits of our labour. I think bringing in other languages is just confusing. staff [not the stick] is staff(s), staff member(s) or member(s) of staff. For the stick, it just takes an s as a countable. All. the shepherds had staffs. I don't like that term oddity.
    – Lambie
    Nov 4, 2023 at 18:25
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    @Lambie: poultry is plural, but ten poultry is not okay. Similarly, police is plural, but ten police is rather questionable. So your reasoning is incorrect (although lots of people will accept ten cattle). Nov 4, 2023 at 20:35
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    @Kyamond There's no doubt that "water" and so forth are most often used uncountably. But it's definitely not the case that those nouns have no plural forms. QED. There's no arguing about that! ;) Nov 4, 2023 at 23:01
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    @EdwinAshworth You keep using this word "etically". I can't find any sources that say it means what you think it means. "Etic" is a word, and Wiktionary says "etically" is the adverb form, but it has nothing to do with countability. The only hits for it on ELL or EL&U are your own words. Assuming it is a technical word in some field, could you reduce the level of your word choice so learners (and many native speakers) can understand?
    – gotube
    Nov 5, 2023 at 5:11
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cattle is countable, yes, and the meaning is plural.

AND: we say "head of cattle" (also used with sheep) so that gives us this kind of sentence:

I have 20 head of cattle on my farm. [notice the singular]

I have many head of cattle on my farm. OR
I have a lot of cattle on my ranch.
I have three cattle on my farm. [not my personal preference]

Also from Wikipedia:

Cattle can only be used in the plural and not in the singular: it is a plurale tantum.[31] Thus one may refer to "three cattle" or "some cattle", but not "one cattle". "One head of cattle" is a valid though periphrastic way to refer to one animal of indeterminate or unknown age and sex; otherwise no universally used single-word singular form of cattle exists in modern English, other than the sex- and age-specific terms such as cow, bull, steer and heifer.

Please note: Personally, I would not use a number with cattle as explained above.

cattle

staff: We say: member of staff or staff members. How many staff members are there in your office? For a walking stick, the word is countable. The shepherds have staffs.

Jeans: He was wearing jeans. How many pairs [of jeans] does he own? Jeans is plurale tantum:

A plurale tantum (Latin for 'plural only'; pl. pluralia tantum) is a noun that appears only in the plural form and does not have a singular variant for referring to a single object. In a less strict usage of the term, it can also refer to nouns whose singular form is rarely used.

'Putting on pants' is correct, 'putting on pant' sounds odd In English, pluralia tantum are often words that denote objects that occur or function as pairs or sets, such as spectacles, trousers, pants, scissors, clothes, or genitals. Other examples are for collections that, like alms and feces, cannot conceivably be singular. Other examples include suds, jeans, outskirts, odds, riches, surroundings, thanks, and heroics.

plurale tantum

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cattle#:~:text=%22One%20head%20of%20cattle%22%20is,%2C%20bull%2C%20steer%20and%20heifer.

Many is for countable nouns only. Much is for non-countable nouns. BUT beware of this: We don't say: I have much coffee (usually). We use: I have a lot of coffee [in the cupboard]. a lot of is preferred to much in many declarative situations.

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  • Thanks for your answer but it doesn't quite answer my question. When I give 4 types of nouns and ask which one "staff" belongs to, it doesn't make sense to answer "We say: member of staff or staff members". By the way, you don't need to use the word "member(s)": "The staff are not very happy about the latest pay increase". Also, I realise that '"jeans" is "plurale tantum" but this still does not answer my question because it still can be countable or uncountable noun. Additionally, no one has clarified the confusion with the words "much" and "many".
    – Kyamond
    Nov 4, 2023 at 17:49
  • @Kyamond Yes, staff is an uncountable noun. You can say member of staff, staff member or staff [everyone]. How does that not answer your question? Also, I did the best I could. You have asked more than one question here which is really not allowed.
    – Lambie
    Nov 4, 2023 at 18:19
  • And this: uncountable nouns: much, little, good/great deal, quantity, amount for example is not clear.
    – Lambie
    Nov 4, 2023 at 18:21
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    And this: "uncountable nouns: much, little, good/great deal, quantity, amount" for example is not clear. No, jeans is ONLY uncountable. I am wearing jeans. They all wore jeans. BUT I own ten pairs of jeans.
    – Lambie
    Nov 4, 2023 at 18:30
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    I think it IS a contradiction. If you look at all points 1), 2) and 3) they contradict each other. And it doesn't matter how many times you write "plural" and "plurale tantum" because it is irrelevant to the contradiction between points 1), 2) and 3)
    – Kyamond
    Nov 4, 2023 at 20:20

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