University of Oxford

Countable Nouns and Uncountable Nouns

Rules of Count/Countable Nouns & Non-count/Uncountable/Mass Nouns:

We can express a count noun in plural form, normally with an “s.” For example, “bat—bats,” “reason—reasons,” “player—players.”

However, there are some exceptions; the notable among them is- the plural form of the word, “man” is not “mans” but “men”.

Generally, we cannot express a non-count noun in a plural form. For example, “milk,” “water,” “air,” “money,” “food.” Usually, we cannot say, “He had many moneys.” However, depending on the situation, there are some non-count nouns that can be expressed in plural forms. For example, “There are two hairs in my tea.”

Count/Countable Nouns:

Countable (or count) nouns are words which can be counted. They have a singular form and a plural form. They usually refer to things. Most countable nouns become plural by adding an ‘s’ at the end of the word. For example, pens, books, etc. Countable nouns are easy to recognise. For example: “pen”. We can count pens. We can have one, two, three or more pens. Here are some more countable nouns:

  • cat, animal, man, person
  • bottle, box, litre
  • coin, note, dollar
  • cup, plate, fork
  • table, chair, suitcase, bag

Countable nouns can be singular or plural:

  • My cat is playing.
  • My cats are hungry.

We can use the indefinite article a/an with countable nouns:

  • A cat is an animal.

When a countable noun is singular, we must use a word like a/the/my/this with it:

  • I want an orange. (not I want orange.)
  • Where is my bottle? (not Where is bottle?)

When a countable noun is plural, we can use it alone:

  • I like oranges.
  • Bottles can break.

We can use some and any with countable nouns:

  • I’ve got some dollars.
  • Have you got any pens?

We can use a few and many with countable nouns:

  • I’ve got a few dollars.
  • I haven’t got many pens.

“People” is countable. “People” is the plural of “person”. We can count people:

  • There is one person here.
  • There are three people here.

Uncountable/Non-count/Mass Nouns:

Uncountable (or non-count) nouns are words which cannot be counted. Therefore, they only have a singular form. They have no plural forms. Uncountable nouns are substances, concepts etc. that we cannot divide into separate elements. Uncountable nouns are also called “mass nouns”. For example, we cannot count “milk”. We can count “bottles of milk” or “litres of milk”, but we cannot count “milk” itself. Here are some more uncountable nouns:

  • music, art, love, happiness
  • advice, information, news
  • furniture, luggage
  • rice, sugar, butter, water
  • electricity, gas, power
  • money, currency

We usually treat uncountable nouns as singular. We use a singular verb. For example:

  • This news is very important.
  • Your luggage looks heavy.

We do not usually use the indefinite article a/an with uncountable nouns. We cannot say “an information” or “a music”. But we can say a something of:

  • a piece of news
  • a bottle of water
  • a grain of rice

We can use some and any with uncountable nouns:

  • I’ve got some money.
  • Have you got any rice?

We can use a little and much with uncountable nouns:

  • I’ve got a little money.
  • I haven’t got much rice.

It is difficult to pluralize abstract nouns because they refer to ideas, concepts. In fact, many of them cannot be. Let us see what happens to an abstract noun when it is pluralized.

  1. The griefs of the nation are too much to bear.
  2. The editors took liberties with our prose.
  3. She formed many friendships at college.

Some uncountable nouns in English are countable in other languages. This can be confusing! Here is a list of some of the most common, easy to confuse uncountable nouns.

accommodation
advice
baggage
bread
equipment
furniture
garbage
information
knowledge
luggage
money
news
pasta
progress
research
travel
work

Obviously, uncountable nouns (especially different types of food) have forms that express plural concepts. These measurements or containers are countable:

water – a glass of water
equipment – a piece of equipment
cheese – a slice of cheese

Here are some of the most common containers / quantity expressions for these uncountable nouns:

accommodation – a place to stay
advice – a piece of advice
baggage – a piece of baggage
bread – a slice of bread, a loaf of bread
equipment – a piece of equipment
furniture – a piece of furniture
garbage – a piece of garbage
information – a piece of information
knowledge – a fact
luggage – a piece of luggage, a bag, a suitcase
money – a note, a coin
news – a piece of news
pasta – a plate of pasta, a serving of pasta
research – a piece of research, a research project
travel – a journey, a trip
work – a job, a position

Here are some more common uncountable food types with their container / quantity expressions:

liquids (water, beer, wine, etc.) – a glass, a bottle, a jug of water, etc.
cheese – a slice, a chunk, a piece of cheese
meat – a piece, a slice, a pound of meat
butter – a bar of butter
ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard – a bottle of, a tube of ketchup, etc.

Nouns that can be Countable and Uncountable:

Sometimes, the same noun can be countable and uncountable, often with a change of meaning.

1

There are two hairs in my coffee!

hair

I don’t have much hair.

2

There are two lights in our bedroom.

light

Close the curtain. There’s too much light!

3

Shhhhh! I thought I heard a noise.
There are so many different noises in the city.

noise

It’s difficult to work when there is too much noise.

4

Have you got a paper to read? (newspaper)
Hand me those student papers.

paper

I want to draw a picture. Have you got some paper?

5

Our house has seven rooms.

room

Is there room for me to sit here?

6

We had a great time at the party.
How many times have I told you no?

time

Have you got time for a coffee?

7

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s greatest works.

work

I have no money. I need work!

If we conceive of the meaning of a noun as a continuum from being specific to being general and abstract, we can see how it can move from being a count noun to a mass noun. Consider, for example, the noun experiences. When I say

I had many horrifying experiences as a pilot.

I’m referring to specific, countable moments in my life as a pilot. When I say,

This position requires experience.

I’m using the word in an abstract way; it is not something you can count; it’s more like an idea, a general thing that people need to have in order to apply for this job.

If I write

The talks will take place in Degnan Hall.

these talks are countable events or lectures. If I say

I hate it when a meeting is nothing but talk. Here, the word talk is now uncountable; I’m referring to the general, abstract idea of idle chatter. Evils refers to specific sins — pride, envy, sloth, and everyone’s favorite, gluttony — whereas evil refers to a general notion of being bad or ungodly.

One more example: “I love the works of Beethoven” means that I like his symphonies, his string quartets, his concerti and sonatas, his choral pieces — all very countable things, works. “I hate work” means that I find the very idea of labor, in a general way, quite unappealing. Notice that the plural form means something quite different from the singular form of this word; they’re obviously related, but they’re different.

Further, as noted earlier, almost all uncountable (mass) nouns can become count nouns when they are used in a classificatory sense:

  1. There were some real beauties in that rose garden.
  2. We had some serious difficulties in this project.

But some things cannot be made countable or plural: we cannot have furnitures, informations, knowledges, softnesses, or chaoses. When in doubt, consult a good dictionary.

Generally, we can pluralize the following non-count nouns by using the word to express a “type”:

  1. The waters of the Atlantic are much warmer this time of year.
  2. The Dutch are famous for their cheeses.
  3. The spring rains came early.

We can use expressions such as

  1. much harm
  2. little harm
  3. a little harm

It is appropriate to precede these nouns with a definite or indefinite article.

  1. the sunshine
  2. an experience
  3. a wine

But they frequently appear with zero article:

  1. Smoking is bad for you.
  2. Poetry is beautiful.
  3. Sugar is sweet.
  4. Experience is the best teacher.
  • These nouns can be preceded by some, any, enough, this, that, and much.
  • Because they are not countable, these nouns cannot be preceded by these, those, every, each, either, and neither.

Adjectives with Countable and Uncountable Nouns

Use a/an with countable nouns preceded by an adjective(s):

Tom is a very intelligent young man.
I have a
beautiful grey cat.

Do not use a/an (indefinite articles) with uncountable nouns preceded by an adjective(s):

That is very useful information.
There is some
cold beer in the fridge.

Words that can be used both with the Countable and Uncountable Nouns:

Used with Countable Nouns

a, an, the

some, several

a large number of

any

few, a few

many

plenty of, a lot of, lots of

no

enough

Used with Uncountable Nouns

the

some

a great deal of

any

little, a little, a little bit of

much

plenty of, a lot of, a large amount of, lots of

no

enough

Examples:

the

Countable

the monkeys, the schools, the teachers, the boats, the bananas

Uncountable

the cheese, the machinery, the luggage, the grass, the knowledge

some

Countable

some tables, some stores, some grapes, some cities, some nurses

Uncountable

some time, some news, some bread, some salt, some mail

any

Countable

any forks, any socks, any bathrooms, any waiters, any beliefs

Uncountable

any advice, any soap, any transportation, any gold, any homework

no

Countable

no magazines, no chocolates, no pilots, no rings, no markers

Uncountable

no trouble, no grass, no scenery, no money, no furniture

a lot of

Countable

a lot of animals, a lot of coins, a lot of immigrants, a lot of babies

Uncountable

a lot of help, a lot of aggravation, a lot of happiness, a lot of fun

lots of

Countable

lots of computers, lots of buses, lots of parties, lots of colleges

Uncountable

lots of cake, lots of ice cream, lots of energy, lots of laughter

enough

Countable

enough plates, enough onions, enough restaurants, enough worries

Uncountable

enough courage, enough wisdom, enough spaghetti, enough time

plenty of

Countable

plenty of houses, plenty of concerts, plenty of guitars, plenty of

Uncountable

plenty of oil, plenty of sugar, plenty of cheese, plenty of space                                               

Works Cited

Borer, Hagit. (2005). In Name Only. Structuring Sense, Volume I. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gupta, Anil. (1980). The Logic of Common Nouns. New Haven and London: Yale University.

Merriam-Webster, Inc. (1995). “less, fewer”. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary of English usage (2nd ed.). Merriam-Webster.

Nicolas, David (2008). “Mass Nouns and Plural Logic”. Linguistics and Philosophy 31.2.

Tsoulas, George (2006). Plurality of Mass Nouns and the Grammar of Number.

            

                                    

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