skip to main content skip to footer

Continuous/Discrete: A Reinterpretation of the Mass/Count Feature of English Common Nouns

Carroll, John B.
Publication Year:
Report Number:
ETS Research Memorandum
Document Type:
Page Count:
Subject/Key Words:
Office of Education, English, Linguistic Theory


The terms "mass" and "count" referring to types of English nouns are defined and then replaced by the terms "continuous" and "discrete," respectively. A noun is unambiguously marked as continuous when it appears in the singular, either with no determiner at all, or with a determiner of quantity such as "all," "much," "some," or "little." A noun is unambiguously marked as discrete when it appears in the plural, or when it appears in the singular with an indefinite article. To test the extent to which a noun can be in either one or both categories, 905 English nouns were jury-tested by three adult native speakers of English and judged on a 5-point scale going from completely continuous to completely discrete. By this procedure, the 905 words were classified as follows: 37 "only A" (continuous nouns) (4.1%), 78 "mostly B" (30.9%), and 209 "only B" (discrete nouns) (23.1%). It is concluded from the data that the continuous/discrete feature is only rarely an invariable or inherent characteristic of English common nouns.

Read More