Countable, uncountable: mail, e-mail: a mail, a piece of mail

Discussion in 'English Only' started by comsci, May 23, 2006.

  1. comsci

    comsci Senior Member

    Taiwan, Vancouver(B.C.) and the Rockies
    Mandarin, Taiwan(Yankees 40 Wang)
    My question is whether these two words "mail" and "e-mail" are countable or not.

    e.g. Recently I received lots of e-mail or e-mails from my very best friend.

    It has been puzzling me for long so please comment. :)
     
  2. maxiogee Banned

    imithe
    My email client is Thunderbird.
    It counts the number of messages I get and folders always display the number of unread messages they contain.
    It must be countable.

    I get spam - it is uncountable :)
    Mail and spam I would imagine are mass nouns.
     
  3. comsci

    comsci Senior Member

    Taiwan, Vancouver(B.C.) and the Rockies
    Mandarin, Taiwan(Yankees 40 Wang)
    That's tricky Maxio. :) How about "I get spam mails(not sure S is needed or not) every now and then"? Or "e-mail spam"? Mass nouns are to be treated "uncountable" that I understand and also when used as adjective(singular/uncountable) Do you, if ever, put an "S" after the word "mail"? I've heard an American say that mail and/or e-mail are not to go with "s", hence "uncountable" all the time. Any exceptions to this rule?(if it is)
     
  4. comsci

    comsci Senior Member

    Taiwan, Vancouver(B.C.) and the Rockies
    Mandarin, Taiwan(Yankees 40 Wang)
    Are you saying that "mail" and "spam" are not to be added with an "S"? That was exactly my original thought.

    Messages are certainly countable, for sure.
     
  5. emma42 Senior Member

    North East USA
    British English
    Yes, Comsci, you can put "s" after mail or email.

    Today, my friend, Jim, sent me four emails.
     
  6. maxiogee Banned

    imithe
    I would just say "I get span every now and then."
    I would never (in Hiberno-English) says "mails", and I don't think American-English does either.
    e-mails is another matter —> one can say "I have a lot of e-mail" and one can also say "I have received 15 e-mails in the last week from that person". I would use singular at times and plural at others. I don't know if this is the same in American-English, but I don't see why it wouldn't be.
     
  7. comsci

    comsci Senior Member

    Taiwan, Vancouver(B.C.) and the Rockies
    Mandarin, Taiwan(Yankees 40 Wang)
    Thanks emma for your input, but I used to think mail and email are uncountable and thus without "s". I don't know why. I used to think it's like the word "news", which is definitely uncountable.
     
  8. comsci

    comsci Senior Member

    Taiwan, Vancouver(B.C.) and the Rockies
    Mandarin, Taiwan(Yankees 40 Wang)
    Yes, that IS exactly what I'm talking about. Mail is a mass noun and no "s" is added after the word, but the question is why not "e-mail." It doesn't mean that I don't understand your saying but this poses a logical issue to me as an English learner.

    e.g. "Today I received four regular mails from Jim, who is my very best friend." would be incorrect but "e-mails" would not. This is the part that I don't understand.
     
  9. emma42 Senior Member

    North East USA
    British English
    I think it must be because, in order to be able to talk about one particular piece of electronic mail, a singular noun had to be invented.
     
  10. maxiogee Banned

    imithe
    This is all based on the fact that Americans speak English badly!:D
    When Americans talk about mail, they mean what the rest of us mean by letters - a plural noun. Letters are the equivalent of e-mails. To Americans mail is a plural noun, I would imagine.
    Don't expect logic from anybody's English usage. :confused:
     
  11. comsci

    comsci Senior Member

    Taiwan, Vancouver(B.C.) and the Rockies
    Mandarin, Taiwan(Yankees 40 Wang)
    Thanks Maxio, I think I have a somehow better picture of the usage. It's more clear with "letters", which mean "mail"(as plural) in the eyes of Americans.

    Maybe we should use "e-letters" instead of "e-mails" to avoid confusion of any kind. And you're right about that there's no logic in any language. :)

    Mail..that's it. E-mail/E-mails and e-card/e-cards :)
     
  12. Wishfull Senior Member

    jp
    Hi.
    As a conclusion, I can say that an e-mail is a countable noun, can't I?
     
  13. comsci

    comsci Senior Member

    Taiwan, Vancouver(B.C.) and the Rockies
    Mandarin, Taiwan(Yankees 40 Wang)
    E-mails are countable/plural, whereas mail is collective/mass noun(singular), thus uncountable. :)
     
  14. Matching Mole

    Matching Mole Senior Member

    England, English
    E-mail is used just as "mail" is, as an uncountable noun describing a system*, or used to refer to items delivered by mail collectively (send by mail/e-mail; I receive a lot of mail/e-mail).

    A message sent by mail is (usually) called a letter, and we don't say "I received a mail from Aunt Agatha": we use the word "letter". However, "e-letter" is not used and a message sent by e-mail is called an e-mail (obviously countable).

    Why? Because that's how its usage evolved: as maxiogee says usages are not always consistent or logical.

    * Like most "uncountable" nouns, mail can be expressed as a plural when talking about different types, services or deliveries of mail, so you may sometimes see it in the plural:
    "Difficulties in the mails made it necessary for Johnson to repeat many messages in successive letters."
     
  15. Myridon

    Myridon Senior Member

    Texas
    English - US
    So when you get a catalog or a postcard or a package from the postman, you call it a letter? :D

    I'd say that e-mail has both countable and uncountable usages. I received a lot of email today. I received a lot of emails in reponse to my ad.
     
  16. sdgraham

    sdgraham Senior Member

    Oregon, USA
    USA English
    I consider "e-mail" to have developed as a shorthand reference to "e-mail message," which obviously is countable.

    I would never - ever - say "mails," however.
     
  17. bluegiraffe

    bluegiraffe Senior Member

    Nottingham, England
    English - England
    No, we call it "post". "Post" is a better UK translation to "mail" than "letter" is. However, we don't call the electronic version "e-post"!
     
  18. brighthope Senior Member

    Toronto
    Japanese
    I was actually going to make a thread about this topic when I found this thread.
    I was going to ask about the change in usage regarding this matter. I wrote the question below.
    (I never made the new thread because I found this one - so some of the answers to my question are addressed here already but I thought it's worth posting)

    When I was in England 10 years ago to study English, one of my teachers said that "e-mail" was the electric version of mail, and mail is not countable, and for the same reason e-mail is not countable. He said instead I had to use "an e-mail message".

    It was 10 years ago when e-mail just had come around. Also he was a writer and particular about usage of words.

    My question.
    Was saying "an e-mail" considered grammatically wrong in the past? Maybe does some people still consider it grammatically wrong? Has the usage changed?

    I'm interested!
     
  19. Matching Mole

    Matching Mole Senior Member

    England, English
    It might be considered wrong now: your teacher may still consider it to be wrong, 10 years later. I'm fairly sure that the term "e-mail" originally referred to the system, as mail or post does to physical mail, and as explained, an item carried by these systems is not called a mail or a post and is uncountable (we have to say "much", "some" or "any" post or mail, without pluralizing, as we do with "money"). According to this logic, "e-mail" might be considered wrong.

    However, "e-mail", like any child, has taken a life and usages of its own; ones not present in the parent. Usage is the ultimate arbiter of what is correct in the English language, and I don't see why exception should be taken to this case. I'm also not convinced that "e-mail" is straightforwardly an abbreviation for "e-mail message", or at least that it still is: it is a complete word in its own right.

    It might be interesting to compare other communications systems, such as telegraph: the system is the telegraph, but a message sent via this system has its own word: telegram. This hasn't happened with e-mail, and neither did it with "facsimile telegraph", or "facsimile", quickly shortened to "fax": messages via this system are called faxes. It's just how things turn out, which is determined according to which coinages gain acceptance.
     
  20. Packard

    Packard Senior Member

    USA, English
    I treat "e-mail" as I would treat "phone call".

    I received a phone call from President Obama.

    I also received phone calls from all the sitting members of the senate.

    (It was a busy day).


    I use the parallel construction for e-mail/e-mails.

    Regular (snail) mail seems essentially different from e-mail. For starts it is a physical item that can be stacked and counted.

    In any event, I received a lot of mail.

    I received 14 pieces of mail.

    I don't think you actually receive "mail" but receive "pieces of mail" or "letters".
     
  21. comsci

    comsci Senior Member

    Taiwan, Vancouver(B.C.) and the Rockies
    Mandarin, Taiwan(Yankees 40 Wang)
    I agree with Packard. That's exactly how I would use "e-mail(s)."

    e.g. I've been receiving lots of e-mails lately, as opposed to a bunch of mail.

    Mail (A.E.) means letters (B.E.), to each their own.
     
  22. Parla Member Emeritus

    New York City
    English - US
    There has been a great deal of speculation in this thread, some of it way, way off base. :eek: I speak, here, only for US usage.

    E-mail, like mail, is essentially an "uncountable", describing a service or system.

    Mail is also used in specific other ways, which (despite one earlier message) do not include being a synonym of "letters". Many things are distributed and delivered by mail—that is, by the U.S. Postal Service (USPS)—including letters, invoices, manuscripts, magazines, and parcels.

    We also use it to mean a group or delivery of such things: Has the mail [= mail delivery for the day] arrived yet? It's in the mail. [I've put it into the system by dropping it in a mailbox, or BE "postbox".] There was a lot of mail today. [The delivery included many items.] Send me the information by mail. [Use this system.] To differentiate this traditional mail from e-mail, it's sometimes referred to as "postal mail" or, informally, as "snail mail".

    E-mail is the electronic equivalent of the above and can encompass any of the items sent by mail except, obviously, printed publications and parcels. Properly, it began like its tangible sibling, as a strictly uncountable term. But people wearied of having to say "e-mail message" with every reference to such a communication. Obviously, one couldn't just say "message," since that's too broad; besides, "message" was already in wide use to mean "telephone message". (I called, but he wasn't in, so I left a message.)

    And so people began to refer to things received via this system differently, and a new use of e-mail (still hyphenated) has evolved: a unit of communication; a message sent by that system, definitely countable. It was sternly disapproved by many at first, but it has now been accepted—because there isn't really any practical alternative.

    So in specific comment on your example:

    You can receive lots of e-mail [a large quantity of the uncountable] from your friend. You can also receive lots of e-mails [many countables]. Your choice.
     
  23. bangla Member

    Bangla
    Hello comsci,
    Although I am not expert in English, I will be able to answer your question.
    I read many dictionaries and found out that the word "mail" is a uncountable noun. e.g : Half a million tonnes of junk mail is generated every year in the U.K.
    On the other hand email or e-mail can be used both as countable and uncountable noun.:)
     
  24. comsci

    comsci Senior Member

    Taiwan, Vancouver(B.C.) and the Rockies
    Mandarin, Taiwan(Yankees 40 Wang)
    Thank you both, Parla and bangla, for providing evidence of usage of mail/e-mail(s). Again, what's in the textbook/grammar book may not always be in accordance with daily usage.
    I understand the rules behind but all I'm arguing is the fact that people do use e-mails nowadays, in their daily conversations at least. Of course, people can have their choices, due to regional differences, in selecting whether to use singular or plural in the case of e-mail(s). I just don't see anything wrong with "lots of e-mails" so why insist with "e-mail only." Languages evolve!
     
  25. eric00 Senior Member

    China
    Chinese
    Hi everyone,

    Are the 2 ways ("a piece of mail" and "a mail"?) both correct with the same meaning? If not, which one is correct? Thanks!
     
  26. sandpiperlily

    sandpiperlily Senior Member

    When speaking about snail mail (physical letters delivered to an address):
    "A piece of mail" and never "a mail."

    When speaking about email:
    "An email" and never "a piece of email."
     
  27. eric00 Senior Member

    China
    Chinese
    Thanks, I got it!
     
  28. Bevj

    Bevj Allegra Moderata

    Girona, Spain
    English (U.K.)
    I have never heard a letter of any description referred to as 'a piece of mail'. It sounds very strange to me.
    A 'paper and envelope' document sent by post would simply be a letter.
     
  29. Scherle

    Scherle Senior Member

    la ciudad de Angeles, Filipinas
    Filipino, and English
    Me too. Would you please provide us a content though just so we could check.
     
  30. sandpiperlily

    sandpiperlily Senior Member

    Interesting -- perhaps "piece of mail" is an Americanism?

    Generally I would just refer to "a letter," of course. But if I had to use "mail" then I'd say "piece of mail," as in:

    "I left a piece of mail on your desk."
    "What was it?"
    "I'm not sure, it looked like a bill."

    "I got five pieces of mail today, but only one was a real letter. The rest was junk mail."
     
  31. JamesM

    JamesM Senior Member

    Sandpiperlily's examples sound completely normal to me. Maybe it is an Americanism. There are no examples of "piece of mail" or "pieces of mail" in the British National Corpus. There are 44 examples of "piece of mail" and 77 examples of "pieces of mail" in the Corpus of Contemporary American English.
     
    Last edited: Mar 2, 2011
  32. George French Senior Member

    English - UK
    I always though that I e-mailed a mail/e-mail and that I posted a letter.
    I have never mailed a letter in my life. I post a letter/postcard in a post-box or more likely I go into a post-office with the letter in an un-stamped envelope. I hand it over the counter and they put a stamp on it and then I give them a few pence/cents to pay for the stamp.

    That is how I put my letters in the post.

    I send/post and receive/get mail.... This may include letters, postcards and parcels: but never a piece of mail.....

    GF..

    That's my version of UK-English....
     
  33. sandpiperlily

    sandpiperlily Senior Member

    In the US, we mail or send a letter (never "a mail"), and send an email.

    I understand, but never use and rarely hear "post a letter."
     
  34. Scherle

    Scherle Senior Member

    la ciudad de Angeles, Filipinas
    Filipino, and English
    pieces of mail sounds awkward for me. But it probably depends on what you got used to. I would say, I got five mails today.
     
  35. JulianStuart

    JulianStuart Senior Member

    Sonoma County CA
    English (UK then US)
    When I grew up in England I only ever got letters and postcards through the post :(. (Well maybe on occasional parcel at birthday and Christmas time, but never a "package")

    Having lived in the US for a long time I now speak of things the same way as the AmE posters. I therefore have a question for my homecountrypersons :eek:
    If you get three letters, two bills, an offer for holiday cruise bargains, three political party information packets and two postcards, you would say "I got 11 X this morning" - what word or phrase would go in place of X, where in the US it would be "pieces of mail"?
     
  36. George French Senior Member

    English - UK
    JulianStuart,

    I got/had 11 posts this morning. I put 4 of them in them in the recycling pile: unread........

    GF..
     
  37. Scherle

    Scherle Senior Member

    la ciudad de Angeles, Filipinas
    Filipino, and English
    Then I suppose our answer depends on where we live. :)
     
  38. JulianStuart

    JulianStuart Senior Member

    Sonoma County CA
    English (UK then US)
    Thanks GF. I knew of the AmE / BrE distinction between mail and post but know now that the former is uncountable (in the US at least; although countable in some parts of the world) while the latter is countable (in the UK).
     
  39. JamesM

    JamesM Senior Member

    I'm curious whether "mails" is colloquial or standard in the Philippines. Are there dictionary entries there that show it in the plural?
     
  40. Scherle

    Scherle Senior Member

    la ciudad de Angeles, Filipinas
    Filipino, and English
    I believe it is colloquial. No dictionary entry that show it plural.
     
  41. JulianStuart

    JulianStuart Senior Member

    Sonoma County CA
    English (UK then US)
    :D
    I looked but couldn't find post defined as a countable individual item but I don't have good access to current UK based dictionaries.
     
  42. Scherle

    Scherle Senior Member

    la ciudad de Angeles, Filipinas
    Filipino, and English
    You could check the previous thread http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=156273

    as per Matching Mole post on thread http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=156273:

    * Like most "uncountable" nouns, mail can be expressed as a plural when talking about different types, services or deliveries of mail, so you may sometimes see it in the plural:
    "Difficulties in the mails made it necessary for Johnson to repeat many messages in successive letters."
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 3, 2011
  43. JulianStuart

    JulianStuart Senior Member

    Sonoma County CA
    English (UK then US)
    Thanks leigh - I searched for "post" and missed this one.
    In Post19 of that thread MM wrote
    This is at odds with GFs comment. Others in that thread just called them "letters".

    We need more BrE speakers to, ahem, post on the subject :D
     
  44. Bevj

    Bevj Allegra Moderata

    Girona, Spain
    English (U.K.)
    Sorry to disagree with a fellow BrE poster but I've never heard this phrase either.
    In Julian's example, I think I would say 'I got a stack of mail this morning, most of it rubbish!' ;)
     
  45. Scherle

    Scherle Senior Member

    la ciudad de Angeles, Filipinas
    Filipino, and English
    I often hear "stack of mail" here as well. :)
     
  46. JulianStuart

    JulianStuart Senior Member

    Sonoma County CA
    English (UK then US)
    Thanks Bevj.

    :eek: A BrE speaker using "mail" - how long have you been living in Spain?

    But you deftly sidestepped the notion of a counter word for the stuff "11 pieces of mail, mostly rubbish"?
     
  47. natkretep

    natkretep Moderato con anima (English Only)

    Singapore
    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    I don't think I'd say 'pieces of mail', but 'items of mail' or 'items of post' sound like possible options for me. (Google turns up lots of examples.) I think I've heard posts in the plural before, but I don't think I'd use it myself. (I haven't seen a dictionary entry that includes post used in this sense as a countable noun.)

    Mail (as a noun) on its own is not non-British. After all, there's Royal Mail, as opposed to the United States Postal Service. :)
     
  48. Ausboy New Member

    Tasmania
    English
    Hi. On the Internet, one might say that there were 11 posts to my thread. Snail mail. There were 11 items of mail this morning. This would distinguish that all were not letters. Mail does mean one delivery to one place, but 'the post arrived late this morning' is probably more British. Regards.
     
  49. Copyright

    Copyright Senior Member

    Penang
    American English
    Chinese has classifiers for many/most of its nouns, which roughly translated means "a piece of [something]." Because of their familiarity with this structure, many Chinese speakers learning English bring this construction with them and want to add a classifier to English nouns.

    On a learning note, Chinese classifiers are almost as much of a challenge for Chinese learners as prepositions are for English learners. There are different ones for people, animals, keys, fruit (but different for bananas which uses the classifier for animals), and on and on. :)
     
  50. lizmag Member

    English
    As British English speakers, my husband and I both use the word "post" like this:
    -Have I got any post?
    -Only a letter from the taxman. I got a parcel from Auntie Lily though.
    -Oh - I wonder where my tickets for the football are...

    So, for me, the post is what the postman brings every morning. I then talk specifically about what those items are - letters, parcels etc.

    I send emails
    I email people
    I use both of the above.

    But I always post a letter / parcel or whatever.
     

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