You can count on this

English and many other (but not all) languages explicitly indicate when a noun is plural. English, of course, usually (but not always) indicates it with the suffix -s.

Nouns which are perceived by speakers of a language to be countable are called count nouns. Some English count nouns are “trees”, “women”, “rocks”, and “carrots”.

Nouns which are perceived as a single entity, not pluralizable, are called mass nouns. Speakers view the objects named by such nouns as a whole. Some English mass nouns are “salt” and “sugar”. Now, it is possible, of course, to pluralize each of these two words, but if we do so, we are not referring to more than one piece (grain) of salt or sugar. Instead, if we pluralize these words, there is a different plural meaning, namely, different kinds of salt or sugars.

Recently I have been spot-checking an English translation of the Bible and came across a verse that had a wording that struck me as incorrect English. The verse said there were so many of something that they were “as the sand on the seashore.”

I flagged that verse for its translators and told them something about number in the wording needed to be revised. Do you find anything wrong with the wording of the verse? And if you do, what is a revision you could suggest to the translators that would be correct English?

5 thoughts on “You can count on this

  1. Milton Stanley says:

    It actually sounds exactly right considering what I assume to be the context. While sand is not usually considered a countable noun, it is in fact made up of little discrete particles that could, at least in theory, be counted. If the idea is to express a huge number, countable but greater than any one person could count in a lifetime, then comparing it to the sand on the seashore is spot-on as an English usage.

  2. John Radcliffe says:

    Wayne, I’ve have to say that I’m with you on this one. In English at least people wouldn’t count the sand but the “grains (or whatever) of sand”.

    I came upon one of those places this morning:

    “They came out with all their troops and a large number of horses and chariots – a huge army, as numerous as the sand on the seashore.” (Joshua 11:4, NIV unchanged in 2010 edition)

    Most of the translations that I checked were similar, but I found three that differed:

    “God’s Word” version has, “Their troops were as numerous as the grains of sand on the seashore”

    CEV, “It seemed as though there were more soldiers and horses and chariots than there are grains of sand on a beach”

    I was disappointed, though, to see that NLT has: “they covered the landscape like the sand on the seashore”, which seems to me to miss the point – the writer isn’t taking about “coverage” but quantity.

    But perhaps we’re just a couple of pedants!

  3. White Man says:

    “How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand.”

    Here, inasmuch as counting is actually involved, one has to specifically mention the grains of sand, which can be counted.

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