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Concourse 2

Countability and uncountability

scales

If you have followed the guide to word class (new tab), you'll know that nouns can be countable (table, dog etc.) or uncountable (water, love, sugar, anger etc.).  You'll also know that some can be both (the seven seas, the sea is rough, sugar is bad for you, two sugars, love is admirable, the loves of her life).

Here we look a bit harder at this very important distinction.  In the picture above, therefore, we can talk about an uncountable noun (weight) and a countable one (kilo[s]).  Note, too, that we can have weights but in a different meaning.
This is not only a very important distinction, it is one that not all languages share and which causes really serious problems for learners at all levels.
In English, it is almost impossible to use a noun correctly unless one first decides whether the noun is to be used as a count noun or as a mass noun.


chocolate chocolates

Mass and Count nouns

some chocolate some chocolates  

The usual distinction made in classrooms is between countability and uncountability and that's probably enough for most learners.  However, we teachers need to know a bit more about the area so a better categorisation is between mass nouns and count nouns.  Often, the term uncountable noun is wrongly used for count nouns which are only plural but obviously countable.  We can say three people or six cattle and this means that the nouns are count nouns but plurals (albeit slightly odd plurals).  Both people and cattle are count nouns but they only occur in the plural.

While the terms countable and uncountable nouns are helpful for some purposes, they are misleading.

For example, money is a mass noun we can count.  We cannot say
    *How many money?
but have to choose
    How much money?

Almost all mass nouns can be made count nouns by the use of another noun so we can have
    some cake a slice of cake
    some cheese → a bit of cheese
    lots of a information → two pieces of information
    too much sugar → three kilos of sugar
etc.  What we do here is add a measure (pint, yard, kilo etc.) or a partitive (bit, piece, lump, slice, rasher, pane, chunk etc.)

By the same token, it is arguably advisable to tell our learners about count and mass uses rather than count and mass nouns because that's nearer the truth of the matter.  For example, we can have:
    How much cheese is in the fridge?
and
    How many cheeses are in the fridge?
    The rough sea is coming over the harbour.
and
    The rough seas are coming over the harbour.


pencils

The distinctions between count and mass nouns

There are two simple enough differences.  Here they are:

  1. Count nouns form plurals, mass nouns do not.  We allow, therefore:
        table-tables
        desk-desks
        house-houses

    etc. but do not allow:
        petrol-*petrols
        information-*informations
        help-*helps
  2. Mass nouns can occur without a determiner or plural form as the subject and object of verbs.  We can have:
        I got advice
        Money helped
        I have furniture

        Information was provided
        Rain fell
    but not
        *I got suggestion
        *Window broke
        *She has pen
        *Chair was comfortable

    although making the count nouns plural or adding a determiner such as an article allows:
        I got suggestions
        She has her pen
        I have the chair
        The drops fell

pronoun

Count nouns

This is the simplest category but it's not always obvious from the form whether a noun is a count noun or not.  The usual defining characteristic of a count noun is its ability to form a plural (usually with -s) when it demands a plural verb form.  Secondarily, is the fact that one can use the indefinite article (a[n]) before it.  There are some important exceptions and irregular forms to consider.

Count nouns which only appear in the plural

Irregular plurals

There are quite a number of common irregular plurals (mostly the result of retaining older forms) and some other oddities to know about:

Nouns modifying other nouns

Many count nouns can work to modify other nouns, by a process called compounding or by classifying the noun in some way, e.g.:
    a book sale, a pencil case, a saloon car, a windmill
In this use the singular is used for the first noun unless there's a possibility of ambiguity.  So we get
    a book shop, a two-hour shift, a four-year-old child, boy scouts, child actor
etc.
but not:
    *three bookshops, *a four-years-old child etc.
There are some exceptions: men friends, women doctors and some avoiding ambiguity such as arms race.
Notice here, too, that some nouns which are nearly always plural only appear in the singular when modifying other nouns:
    spectacle case, binocular case, trouser pocket
.

by foot

Unmarked uses of count nouns

on foot  

There are times when the amount of a count noun really doesn't matter – it's the concept we want to express so we treat the nouns as mass nouns and leave out the article.  We get, therefore, example such as:

go to / be in bed, church, school, hospital etc.
travel by / go by car, bicycle, plane, rail ferry etc.
at / before / after / by / in dawn, sunset, sunrise, autumn, day, night etc.

Many reference books treat these kinds of thing as idioms to be learned separately but it is conceptually easier to see them as unmarked forms (Chalker 1987: 29).

There are a number of other expressions in which the noun is not marked for plural or singular forms.  Here's a list (also based on Chalker, op cit.):

  1. Other prepositional phrases:
    by chance, on call, by hand, in mind, at heart
    etc.
  2. Parallel structures:
    arm in arm, eye to eye, year after year
    etc.
  3. Double structures:
    hand over fist, life after death, hand on heart
    etc.

mass

Mass nouns

It's easy enough to spot normal mass nouns because

So we get the common list of mass nouns:

advice, anger, assistance, bread, chaos, courage, dirt, education, information, leisure, luck, machinery, milk, news, permission, poetry, rubbish, shopping, transport, weather etc.

These are mass nouns in English but not in many languages.

Many abstract nouns in English are mass nouns so we can include in the list, e.g.:
    advice, anger, happiness, information, knowledge, news etc.
but that is not an entirely reliable rule because:
    belief, joy, pleasure, prejudice, suggestion, theory and virtue
can all be used as count nouns.

But:

Nouns with both mass and count uses


choice

Choice of quantifier and other determiner

In English, but not in all languages, whether a noun is mass or count controls how it is determined.  Quantifiers are, for obvious reasons, the most affected.  For example:

many vs. much
many is used for count nouns:
    She has many problems
    There were many people who disagreed
    How many knives are there?
much is used with mass nouns
    I don't have much work on
    There was much disagreement
    How much cutlery is there?
(a) few vs. (a) little
Except colloquially, few is used for count nouns:
    There were few people who disagreed
    A few children arrived late
    There are fewer things to do now
    The winner is the one with the fewest points
(a) little is used for mass nouns:
    I need a little help here
    Less noise please!
    The least wine makes be giddy
a, each and every
These only work with count nouns so we allow:
    a man
    each child
    every possibility

but not
    *a furniture
    *each grass
    *every anger
articles
The rules are:
  1. A count noun in the plural can appear with the zero article:
        Parrots are interesting birds
  2. A count noun in the singular cannot appear with the zero article:
        *Parrot is interesting bird
  3. A mass noun can stand with the zero article:
        Food for parrots must be carefully selected
  4. A mass noun cannot appear with the indefinite article:
        *A food for parrots must be chosen carefully
The consequence of these rules is that any usually count noun used in the singular with no article is assumed to be meant as a mass noun.  So for example, if we say:
    An apple would be a good addition to this
we are using the noun apple in its usual count-noun guise, but if we say:
    Apple would be a good addition to this
we clearly intend that apple is understood as a mass noun.

Some common quantifiers and determiners are unaffected and insensitive to the distinction, including a lot of, any, the, some and more.
There is a list of quantifiers which notes which are restricted and which not on this site, linked in the list of related guides at the end.


equal

Equivalent synonyms

English is slightly unusual in have a range of pairs of nouns which mean more or less the same thing but one is count and the other mass.
Here's a short list:

Mass nouns Count nouns
advice
carpeting
change
fauna
flora
flu
foliage
footwear
fruit
gear, equipment
knowledge
laughter
luggage
mail
pasta
software
wildlife
suggestion
carpet
coin
animal
plant
cold
leaf
shoe, sandal etc.
vegetable
tool
belief
laugh
suitcase
letter
noodle
app, program
animal

Often, what is called a superordinate is a mass noun and the hyponyms which lie below it (and are included in the superordinate) are count nouns.  So for example, we get:

hyponymy


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Related guides
partitives and classifiers for a more advanced guide how mass nouns may be made countable
quantifiers for a PDF formatted list of common quantifiers and their use with mass or count nouns
mass nouns for a list of the most common and troublesome mass nouns in English
word class for an overview
nouns for a more advanced guide to nouns in general which includes discussion of the mass-count distinction in more detail


References:
Chalker, S, 1987, Current English Grammar, London: Macmillan