Syntax: Modifying Count and Mass Nouns

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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.

Since you’ll remember less information from this lesson if you don’t practice what you just learned, here are a few practice problems!


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1. In the next sentence, which of the underlined words or phrases, if any, has an error? Burlington Center has less than 20 tenants—including a Sears and a Foot Locker—but once had more than 100.

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2. In the next sentence, which of the underlined words or phrases, if any, has an error? A decade before, the mountainous region of less than two million people had declared independence from Serbia, but far from ending Kosovo’s troubles, independence appears to have brought a new set of problems entirely.

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3. Which version of the underlined section below uses the correct modifier and most precise word choice? When drive-ins were at the height of their popularity in the late 1950s, some four thousand existed in the United States, but today there are less than one-quarter that many.

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4. In the next sentence, which of the underlined words or phrases, if any, has an error? Despite being popular among students, the cafeteria serves fewer than five different dishes every day.

Your score is

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