Countable and uncountable nouns

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In English, nouns are divided into countable and uncountable nouns. It is useful to learn this classification because it will be useful in your further studies.

Countability is quite an important grammatical category of nouns. Several important rules of grammar depend on whether a word is countable or not.

To avoid just talking about abstract concepts, we will give a concrete example to demonstrate what this issue deals with:

  • two cars
  • three coins

At first glance, everything seems clear and there is nothing more to discuss. The opposite is true. There are expressions, or nouns, to which it is not possible to simply assign a number or no number at all.

Countable nouns

Countable nouns are nouns that can be made plural, where we can determine the number of individual pieces. For example, the noun book has both a singular and a plural form (book/books); if we have a book or books in front of us, we can count how many pieces there are: e.g. one book, two books, etc.

Examples of English countable nouns:

  • A book
  • An apple
  • A song
  • A student
  • A cat
  • A dog
  • A banana
  • A carrot
  • A guitar
  • An orange

Uncountable nouns

We refer to uncountable nouns as those nouns that cannot be counted, the number of pieces cannot be determined. For example, the word snow: you cannot say one snow, much less two snows, or three snows, or even many snows. The uncountable usually include abstract (love, hate) or substantive (snow, water, air) nouns.

The things that are uncountable in English most often include:

  • abstract expressions (for example, “love”, “hate” or “passion”),
  • liquids (“water”, “wine” or “tea”),
  • materials (‘glass’, ‘wood’ or ‘iron’),
  • and loose things (“sand”, “salt” or “rice”).

Examples of English uncountable nouns:

  • Water
  • Milk
  • Beer
  • Wine
  • Tea
  • Coffee
  • Iron
  • Glass
  • Wood
  • Football
  • Hockey
  • Tennis
  • Work
  • Information
  • Light
  • Air
  • Suggar
  • Beef
  • Salt

How do we determine countability?

For abstract nouns, countability often cannot be logically deduced. Then it is necessary to use a dictionary. Every Oxford or Cambridge dictionary contains this information about nouns. You can tell countability by the abbreviations C (countable) and U (uncountable).

Grammar rules

1: Plural

Countable nouns have plurals (dogs, books), uncountable nouns do not. So you will probably never see the noun “snows, airs, informations, advices, etc…”.

2: Without the article

Singular countable nouns in standard English cannot be without the article. So you should not use the noun DOG alone (“Dog is perfect pet” – but “A dog is a perfect pet”). In the plural, it is acceptable (“Dogs are perfect pets”.). Uncountable nouns without the article can be. (“Water is wet”)

3: Indefinite article

Countable nouns can have the indefinite article (“a dog”, “a book”, “a house”), but uncountable nouns cannot. So you will never find the expression “an information”, “a snow”, etc. In this case, we have to replace the indefinite article with some (some snow).

4: SOME, ANY

For singular countable nouns, neither SOME nor ANY (“some dog, some man, any house”) can be used. In the plural, yes (“some dogs, some men, some houses”).

Indefinite nouns use SOME and ANY they can replace the function that the indefinite article would have (“some water, some air, some information”).

5: MANY, MUCH, FEW, LITTLE

If we want to say that there is a lot of something, we generally use the expression a lot of (a lot of people, a lot of books, a lot of money, a lot of information). This is the same for countable and uncountable nouns.

However, there are also the words much (for uncountable) and many (countable), which are already countable. However, they are used more in negative sentences (e.g. “I haven’t got much money”) and in some conjunctions (too much/too many, how much/how many, etc.) In positive sentences, the word much is not used (“I have got much money”); the word many can be used, but is a bit more formal.

The opposite is expressed by the words few (countable) and little (uncountable).

How to count uncountable

If we find that, for example, tea is uncountable, but we really want two teas? Don’t worry, it’s not that hard, you can add something countable before each uncountable and this “trick” will solve it. This “trick” is called partitives in English.

In our case, you ask for “two cups of tea”, because cups are already countable. The same goes for the other words. It’s probably best to give some concrete examples:

  • a piece of information
  • a piece of advice
  • a glass / bottle of wine
  • a loaf / slice of bread
  • a bar of chocolate
  • a piece of homework
  • a slice of toast
  • a sheet of paper
  • a cup of tea
  • a cube of ice
  • a peace of advice
  • a tube of toothpaste
  • a drop / sip of water
  • a sheet of paper
  • a two pairs of trousers
  • a jar of jam

Example of nouns that are both countable and uncountable

In English, there are also nouns that can be countable in one sense but uncountable in another. It is necessary to know these nouns, to know about them, and then to decide whether they are countable or uncountable according to the particular context in which the word is used. Typical representatives of this category are nouns:

Uncountable

Countable

glass -> such as glass in a window glass -> a glass for drinking
wood -> material wood -> many trees in the forest
paper -> material paper -> a (news)paper
chicken -> type of meat chicken -> an animal

Summary

The countability of nouns can often be logically deduced; for more abstract nouns, it is useful to consult a dictionary. There are several important things that depend on accountability:

Countable nouns: singular nouns always have a definite article (a/the dog), plural nouns can be without an article and often take some (dogs, the dogs, some dogs), or are associated with many and few.

Uncountable nouns: always singular, cannot take the indefinite article (can be without or with the definite article), often take some, or many and few.

 

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