Is Software a Mass Noun?

By Maeve Maddox

A reader noticed the following statement about the unauthorized use of pre-installed software programs on computers sold by hardware suppliers:

…in most of the cases, these computers are loaded with unlicensed softwares.

The reader asks,

isn’t software neither singular nor plural but a class?

The most common use of the word software is as a mass noun. Another term for “mass noun” is “uncountable noun.”

Abstract nouns such as courage, cowardice, intelligence, and happiness are mass nouns because they cannot be combined with an indefinite article. For example, one can’t speak of “a courage” or “a cowardice.” Mass nouns cannot be preceded by a numeral without specifying a unit of measurement: “a ton of coffee,” “a modicum of intelligence.”

Mass nouns that name aggregates of people or things: the Fifth Estate, the 99%, the proletariat are also called “collective nouns.”

In the context of the example provided by the reader, the word should be software. The computers are plural, but software is being used with the meaning “programs and procedures required to enable a computer to perform a specific task.” For example,

Why Software Is Eating The World” –The Wall Street Journal

I’ve seen comments that declare categorically that software must be used only as an uncountable noun, but English usage is uneasy with “musts” and “onlies.” Depending upon context, mass nouns often occur as countable nouns; for example:

He is losing his hair. (uncountable)
Are these cat hairs in my soup? (countable)

The United States is a big importer of coffee. (uncountable)
We’ll have two coffees, please. (countable)

Softwares is out there. Some software providers incorporate the plural into their names, for example, “JJ Softwares.” I saw this headline at Forbes: “15 Marketing Softwares That Can Boost Your Business.” The article is about several software programs, so one can argue that the plural softwares is justified. On the other hand, some writers would prefer to phrase the topic as “Fifteen Software Programs That Can Boost Your Business.”

Bottom line: Treat software as an uncountable noun, unless you have a strong reason not to.

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10 Responses to “Is Software a Mass Noun?”

  • Oliver Lawrence

    You sometimes find the “softwares” error propagated by non-native speakers of English. For example, “software” exists in Italian as a count noun, and native Italians writing in English sometimes erroneously assume it to be a count noun in English as well, when instead they should use “software packages”, “programmes”, “software systems”, etc., as appropriate to the context.

  • Rich Wheeler

    I think an explanation of the difference between mass and collective nouns (if one exists) would have added value to the article.

    Mass or collective nouns sometimes (not often) convert to plurals when one refers to different types of the thing named. For example, after referring to types of intelligence such as emotional intelligence and scholastic intelligence, one might refer to them collectively as “types of intelligence” and then simplify that to “intelligences.” Note that the context first explains the usage.

    Some simplifications are common. In the example, “two coffees,” the implied meaning is “two cups of coffee.” We drop the means of delivery and transfer the plural from cups to coffee. Strictly speaking, this is colloquial (spoken usage that relaxes the rules of language), not formal usage. Avoid such simplifications in formal writing. It is not appropriate, just like failing to capitalize letters or using “textlish” in posts.

  • Wanda Bower

    If I were writing that headline, I would make it “Fifteen Programs….” The original headline is equivalent to writing “Fifteen Clothings that Make You Look Thinner.” Your suggested revision would be equivalent to “Fifteen Clothing Pants…..”

  • Raspal Seni

    I always use ”Software Programs”, if I have to say something about many ”softwares”. If people use the word ”Softwares”, then hardwares should also be correct.

    Talking about cofees, I never heard or read that word yet. Two cups of cofee is more appropriate it seems. ”Give me two coffees please” – doesn’t sound good to me.

  • Dale A. Wood

    These are all mass nouns – or collective nouns, to use the more common term: software, hardware, firmware, and information.
    Likewise for the abbreviated form, “info”. Don’t try to pluralize it like some people do.

    It is interesting that in German, the word “Auskunft” can be used in two different ways, depending on the context. It can translate into English as “information” or as “a piece of information”. For an example in English: “Let me give you a valuable piece of information. There is no such thing as alien abduction.” (a werewolf, a vampire, a ghost…)
    In big airports and train stations, even in English-speaking countries, you will sometimes see a sign that says “Auskunftstelle”. That’s the German word that means “Information Stand” – a useful place for international travelers.

    If you have never heard of “firmware”, that is because it is a rather technical term from electronics engineering and computers. For more info, please look it up on the Internet.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Besides “software programs” and “pieces of software”, there can be “software systems”, “software subsystems”, and “software code”.

    Like Dr. Maddox said, using the word “softwares” is rather dumb, and I’ll add that it is imprecise language, too. That is another piece of information for today!
    Dale

  • venqax

    Why would anyone who speaks English as a first language think that saying “softwares” is okay? What does a single software look like. Is what you have on your specific computer “a software”? Or is it overall program, like “Microsoft Word is a software”? How would any of these sound remotely normal to an English speaker?

  • venqax

    There is no such thing as alien abduction.” (a werewolf, a vampire, a ghost…)

    You seem awfully sure of that. I don’t know, I’d be careful…just sayin’.

  • Kristin

    Quote: Are these cat hairs in my soup? (countable)
    I would still say “Is this cat hair in my soup?” unless it was something I could count – “Do I see 3 cat hairs in my soup?”

  • Devin

    I was reading a book that had a sentence that looked like it contained a misuse of the word “software”:
    “A newly released software contains an uncertain number of defects.”

    I do think software is a mass noun, but how would singularize it? I would have had “A newly released software application contains an uncertain number of defects.”

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