Countable and uncountable nouns in English
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There are two categories of nouns in English: countable nouns and uncountable nouns in English. They must be distinguished because their use is different.
Countable nouns refer to distinct elements, things that we can count. In front of a countable noun, we can use a number, the indefinite articles a/an, the defined article the, some (in the plural), or a possessive or demonstrative adjective. They can be used either in the singular or plural, usually with a final -s:
- a car → two cars
- an orange → three oranges
- one girl → two girls
- a friend → four friends
These names can be counted, so they are countable.
However, there are spelling irregularities as well as exceptions and invariable words (which do not change to the plural) – for more details see the lesson on plurals.
- man → men
- woman → women
- baby → babies
- tooth → teeth
- child → children
- kiss → kisses
- knife → knives
- mouse → mice
- tomato → tomatoes
- sheep → sheep
- deer → deer
- aircraft → aircraft
The uncountable nouns represent global things, which cannot be counted. They may not be preceded by a number or a year. They require a verb in the singular. Often, uncountable nouns do not have a plural.
- I hate milk.
Milk cannot be counted, so it is an uncountable noun. You can’t say: I hate
The uncountable nouns are generally:
- Materials, substances or food too small or too fluid to be counted one by one (liquid, powder, gas): coffee, flour, butter, blood, gold, cheese, bread, honey, air, milk, rice, sugar, tea, water, soap, jam, paint
- Human feelings or qualities: beauty, fear, anger, love
- Abstract concepts, ideas or qualities: information, knowledge, luck, safety, money, evidence, weather, advice, transport
- Nouns formed from verbs or adjectives: reading, youth
- The colours: red, yellow, etc…
- The names of sports and games: football, billiards, chess, darts…
⚠ These nouns are invariable and always followed by a verb in the singular:
- Her hair is black.
How to quantify uncountable nouns
To indicate a quantity of elements, or to isolate a unit from a set represented by an uncountable noun, it is sometimes necessary to use expressions or measures that make it possible to count them more or less precisely (also called “enumerator”): some, a lot of, a bit of, a cup of, a bag of, a handful of, a pinch of…
- a bag of flour
- a bowl of soup
- a cup of tea
- a game of tennis
- a glimmer of hope
- a handful of almonds
- a kilo of rice
- a loaf of bread
- a lump of sugar
- a means of transport
- a piece of advice
- a piece of cake
- a piece of fruit
- a piece of furniture
- a pinch of salt
- a sheet of paper
- a slice of bread
- a spoonful of jam
- some advice
⚠ Some singular uncountable nouns are not used with a enumerator. It may be that:
- Some nouns formed from verbs: advertising, skating…
- Some disease names: AIDS, flu, measles…
- Abstract values: business, happiness, justice, poverty, unemployment, weather…
- Names in -ics: athletics, economics, electronics, mathematics, mechanics, physics, politics…
⚠ The article ‘a’ is sometimes found in front of some uncountable nouns, in some expressions in particular:
- I’m in a hurry
- What a relief!
- What a shame!
An uncountable singular can be replaced by a countable noun, which can be completely different:
|Uncountable nouns||Countable nouns|
|accomodation||a room, a flat|
|fishing||a good catch|
|travel||a trip, a journey|
- He’s looking for work (in general)
- He’s looking for a job (something specific)
⚠ The word hair is normally uncountable in English, so it is used in the singular. It can also become countable only when it refers to one hair:
- She has long blond hair.
- I washed my hair yesterday.
- I found a hair in my soup!
Plural uncountable nouns
Some uncountable names are always in the plural:: clothes, contents, customs, goods, looks, morals, oats, stairs, jeans, pyjamas, shorts, trousers, tights, binoculars, glasses, pliers, scales, scissors…
They always match with a plural verb!
- Where are the binoculars?
- Those stairs don’t look very safe.
If you want to talk about one or more specific objects, you must use a enumerator:
- two flights of stairs
- I need three pair of jeans
- a pair of scissors
Plural uncountable nouns with a collective meaning
Nouns like clergy, police, poultry, cattle… have a collective meaning: contrary to their appearance, they are true plurals and they always require a verb in the plural, with the personal pronoun they:
- Cattle are fed with grass
- The police are coming
Some countable nouns can be used as uncountable nouns: they change their meaning and function:
- Give me a glass of wine. (the container)
- Look out for broken glass. (the material)
- I’ve got two chickens in my garden. (birds)
- I’ve had chicken for lunch. (meat)