10 Mass noun | count noun

This trait allows one to specify the syntactico-semantic profile of the noun associated with the sought-after determiner. It is subdivided into two values: « massif » (mass noun/uncountable) and « comptable » (count noun/countable).

Comptable (countable)

Some French nouns are considered count nouns, others, mass nouns. This characterisation is based on semantic criteria, but is also linked to syntactic phenomena. From the semantic point of view, a noun is countable when it designates an entity which can be analysed as a distinct unit, which could in principle be a single member of a set of similar objects, eg. pen, building, bird. These units often share an archetypal form, or at least clear physical delimitations, and a particular usage. In the various languages of the world, count nouns are those which designate living beings, plants and concrete objects featuring in everyday life. From a syntactic point of view, these names are combined with determiners which create a reference to a particular entity, or to a plurality of entitities, such as a certain woman, some women, several women, not to mention cardinal numbers, four women.

et lors fust en chascun chandelier un cierge assis, si gros et si alumes que nus vens ne le poïst estaindre [...] (1200- 1250)

Massif (non-countable)

Mass nouns designate entities which cannot easily be decomposed into distinct units. Such nouns often designate substances, whose individual components are not naturally discernable, such as sand, milk, oxygen. From a syntactic point of view, one observes that mass nouns can be combined with determiners in order to create a reference to a quantity, a mass. These include the simple partitives, du lait (some milk), de la crème (some cream), and others, more complex, beaucoup de sable (lots of sand), moins de lait (less milk), 20% d'oxygène (20% oxygen). Mass nouns cannot easily be combined with determiners in such a way as to create a reference to a particular unit or to a plurality of units, except by way of another noun which designates a sub-entity, or a measurement, a grain of sand, a glass or a litre of milk, an atom of oxygen. Nevertheless, the mediation of a unit of measurement is not always necessary in order to combine a mass noun with a determiner usually reserved for count nouns. One can talk of an excellent wine or several Bordeaux wines, a very fine sand or several sands of different colours or yet further an orange juice with ice or a few coffees. As these examples show, mass nouns can sometimes be naturally treated as distinct units, even in the absence of any word which designates a unit of measurement, but only at the cost of a semantic shift. A mass noun can indeed designate a substance, such as wine, coffee, beer, but also a certain type of this substance, such as a wine of Bordeaux which designates wine from the region of Bordeaux, or equally a unit of measurement which is appropriate to that substance, such as a coffee, a beer which, respectively, designate a small cup and a half-litre glass of that substance. The determiner employed alongside a mass noun or a count noun can be the only thing that modifies the semantics of the noun in a particular case. It is for this reason that observations of this trait have proved especially pertinent for the study of French determiners.

Beaucoup, et rien : j'ai vu pour moi quelque tendresse ; ( 1600- 1650)

* Note
The situation is more difficult when it comes to analysing abstract nouns (see the description concerning feature 10). It is perhaps less intuitive to consider idea or sentiment as count nouns, or courage or liberty as mass nouns. But the nouns idea and sentiment appear to be distinct events, which no doubt explains their status as count nouns, and the nouns courage and liberty, which seem rather to designate states are difficult to comprehend as anything other than mass nouns. Despite these difficulties, the distinction between mass nouns and count nouns holds for abstract nouns.

Example of an abstract count noun:
Dont la nouvelle estant venue jusques à monsieur le Prince de Piedmont, pour le desir qu'il avoit de le voir l'envoya querir, en la presence duquel plusieurs en feirent divers jugements ; la figure duquel t'est icy representee apres le naturel. (1580)

Example of an abstract mass noun:
Vous le verrez par le jugement qu'il fit de la paraphrase d'un pseaume, qui m'avoit esté envoyée de Languedoc : elle estoit de la façon d'un des beaux esprits de ce pays-là, et on me mandoit que ce bel esprit y avoit travaillé de toute sa force ; [...](1550-1600)