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Syntax: Modifying Count and Mass Nouns

Were there fewer (or less) patent infringement suits filed this month than the previous month?

Count Nouns:

  • What Are They: Count nouns refer to individual, countable, or quantifiable items. This includes both concrete nouns (dogs, children, books) and abstract nouns (ideas, moments, thoughts). They can be singular or plural.

  • Modifiers:
    • A Large or Small Amount: Many/fewer (“He had many ideas.”)
    • Indefinite Quantity: Several/few (“He compiled the views of several philosophers.”)
    • Individual Item Within a Set: Each/every (“Each dog at that training did well.”)
    • Numbers: One, fifty, one hundred (She was owed one-hundred dollars.”)

Mass Nouns:

  • What Are They: Mass nouns refer to substances, concepts, or qualities that cannot be individually counted or quantified. Like count nouns, this includes both concrete nouns (water, gold) and abstract nouns (knowledge, weather, mathematics). But unlike count nouns they are usually singular.
  • Modifiers:
    • A Large or Small Amount: Much/less (“She didn’t have much patience left.”)
    • Indefinite Quantities: Little/a bit/piece of (“You should have a little water.”)

Modifiers that can be used with both:

  • Some, any, no, all.
Rule (Common Mistake)—Fewer/Less: If you can COUNT it, you need fewer. Otherwise, you need less.