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  • Writer's pictureTom Garside

Countable and uncountable nouns - what’s the difference?



Countable and uncountable nouns

When learning another language, it is important to know the way that things are named. Some languages add gender to nouns, some use specific endings to denote subjects and objects, and others define things by whether they can be counted or not. Countability is a common issue for learners of English, especially for speakers of non-European languages. So what makes a noun countable or uncountable?


As with most areas of language, it is useful to start by separating the concept (or meaning) behind countability, and the way that this is structured grammatically.


Concepts of countability


Thinking about meaning, there are some intuitively countable and uncountable nouns, which can be taught quite directly. The following sets of nouns, linked by meaning, are uncountable:


Liquids and pastes, such as water, tea, coffee, juice, toothpaste, plasticine, clay or putty are all uncountable, as they are seen in amounts of a single mass. These are measured with specific, countable units such as litres, fluid ounces, pints, etc.


Powders and grains, such as tea (the leaves), coffee (the powder), sand, sugar, salt, flour, rice, and even pasta, are seen almost like liquids. We would never count out individual grains of rice, salt or sand, so they are measured in other ways, either by weight or other measurements (teaspoons, cups, grams, etc.)


Materials used for constructing or producing are uncountable. Again, as we measure these using weights or lengths to use. Think about wood, metal, glass, plastic, stone or brick. All are uncountable materials until they are specifically measured.


Gases and vapours can’t be counted, as we can’t (usually) see them. They act like liquids and are measured in volume. Air, oxygen, hydrogen, methane, carbon dioxide, etc. in themselves cannot be counted.


Large units which are cut or sliced into smaller parts for use are not countable in themselves (though the slices are). This includes foods such as meat, bread, cheese, and products which are cut or broken off for use such as kitchen wrap, tape, string, ribbon, etc. The product itself is uncountable, though the cut pieces can be counted.


Abstract concepts and the nouns we use to name emotions cannot be counted - after all, they are too abstract to be quantified in this way. Time, ambition, confidence and happiness are therefore uncountable, though the seconds, hours and minutes we use to measure time are countable.


Collecting examples of uncountable nouns under categories such as these can really help learners to remember patterns of uncountable nouns and apply them to new things that they talk about.


Grammatical countability


Grammatically, the difference between countable and uncountable nouns is easy to see (if not always to remember). There are certain structures which we use to quantify or define countable or uncountable nouns, and some which work with both, as follows:


Language item

Countable form 

both

Uncountable form

Plural form

-s ending

X

No plural form

Verb form

Singular or plural +s

There is a + N / there are + Ns

X

Singular only 

There is N

A/an, 0 + plural

The

no article

Not many

Some N+s

Few / a few

Fewer



Aren’t any + Ns

A lot of

Some



Enough 

Plenty of

Not much

Some + N

Little / a little / a bit of

Less



Isn’t any

Other nouns

A number of…


An amount of…


To help students remember the form of a sentence with countable or uncountable nouns, a good rule is: Either the verb or the noun needs to end with an -s. If there is no -s ending on the noun, then the verb should end in -s. If the noun has no -s ending, the verb needs to end in -s.


Nouns can be both countable and uncountable


Some nouns have both countable and uncountable forms, which may mean quite different things, as follows:


Uncountable form and meaning

Countable form and meaning

Tea, coffee, juice (the liquid)

Teas, coffees, juices (cups or glasses of the drink)

e.g. two teas and a coffee, please

Potato, apple, tomato, etc. (cut, mashed or grated)

e.g. there’s some potato on the floor

Potatoes, apples, tomatoes 

(the individual vegetables)

Time (the abstract concept)

e.g. time flies when you’re having fun

Times (individual occasions)

e.g. I’ve seen him three times this week

Glass (the material)

Glasses (drinking vessels or spectacles)

Hair (the natural covering on your head)

Hairs (individual strands of hair)

e.g. there is a hair on your jumper

Iron (the metal)

An iron (the device for flattening clothes)


Common errors with countability


Countability is such a sticky point in English that even first-language speakers have started to reduce the complexity of the patterns above. ‘Less’ has become a much more frequent quantifier for both countable and uncountable nouns, with sentences such as:


There are less people here than usual

I’ve eaten less sweets than you


And at supermarket checkouts across the English-speaking world:


10 items or less - queue here


In the above examples, the nouns ‘people’, ‘sweets’ and ‘items’ are all countable, so should take the quantifier ‘fewer’. However, ‘fewer’ has become a much less common way of quantifying countable nouns, with speakers preferring the simpler ‘less’ instead.


Working with countability in terms of meaning and grammar, and returning to examples and categories of countable and uncountable noun at different periods of study, can help learners to incorporate this important aspect of English into their language, leading to clearer and more precise communication.


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