Grammar. 06.12.2011
Grammar Teacher

Countable and uncountable nouns

Автор: Grammar Teacher

The distinction between countable and uncountable nouns is fundamental in English, because only by distinguishing between these two forms we can understand when to use singular or plural verb forms and when to use the indefinite (a/an), definite (the) and zero articles or the appropriate quantifier (a few, much, many, etc.). Unfortunately, we cannot always rely on common sense to tell us when a noun is countable or uncountable. For example, the noun advice is uncountable in English, but its equivalent in Ukrainian and Russian (порада/совет) is countable.






These are things we can count: one stamp, two stamps…They can have a singular and plural form (можуть бути вжиті в однині і множині): some girls, many suggestions.

Before singular countable nouns you can use a/an:

That’s a good suggestion.
Do you need an umbrella?

You cannot use singular countable nouns alone (without a/the/my etc.)

I am looking for a job (not I am looking for job)
Be careful of the dog (not Be careful of dog)

 Most countable nouns are concrete (they have an individual physical existence).For example:

Persons, animals, plants                              a girl, a horse, a rose

Objects                                                           a bottle, a desk, a typewriter

Groups                                                           an army, a crowd, a herd

Units of measurement                                  a franc, a kilo, a litre, a metre

Parts of a mass                                              a bit, a packet, a piece, a slice

 A few countable nouns are abstract (not physically real): an idea, a nuisance, a remark, a situation, a proposal, a scheme, a statement etc.


These are things we cannot count. They usually have only one form  - singular (without ‘s’ in the end). You cannot say bloods, musics, excitements.

Before uncountable nouns you can use the/some/any/much/this/his (the music, some gold, much excitement, his blood), BUT you cannot use a/an before an uncountable noun. So you CANNOT say a music, an excitement, or a blood. You can also use an uncountable noun alone, with no article:

The ring is made of gold.
Blood is red.

As you can see from the last example, we use singular verb forms with uncountable nouns. The same refers to pronouns:

The food is ready. Get it while it’s hot. 

Many uncountable nouns are abstract: love, anger, equality, honesty, information, news, etc.

Concrete uncountable nouns include words like:

Names of substances (materials, liquids, gases): leather, paper, wood, metal, silver, water, air, wine, flour, bread.

Activities: camping, drinking, eating, sailing, jogging, tennis, squash, snooker.

Languages: Arabic, Italian, Japanese, Turkish, etc.

Collective nouns (nouns that refer to a group of people or things): furniture, equipment, luggage, accommodation, etc.

 It’s been all pretty easy so far, hasn’t it? Why not watch the following videos to make it even clearer?




 Many nouns which are generally uncountable can also be countable in certain contexts.

1. Some nouns are uncountable when we use them as substances, material, or concepts, but countablewhen we talk about one specific item (chicken/a chicken, egg/ an egg, stone/ a stone, hope/a hope, hair/ a hair) 

countable (a single item)                                   uncountable (substance/material)

He ate a whole chicken!                                    Would you like some chicken?

I had a boiled egg for breakfast.                         There's egg on your face.

I tied it up with a ribbon.                                     I bought a metre of ribbon.

2. Some words can mean both object and material (a glass/glass an ice/ice, an iron/iron, a paper/paper).

When we use such nouns as countables, we refer to a thing which is made of the material, bur when we use them as uncountables, we refer only to the material.

countable ('thing')                                                                      uncountable ('material')

I broke a glass (=стакан) this morning.                                      Glass is made from sand.

Would you like an ice (=морозиво чи порцію льоду)?              Iсу floats.

I've got a new iron (=праску)                                                      Steel is an alloy of iron.

What do the papers (=газети) say?                                           Paper is made from wood.

 3. Many nouns which are normally uncountable can be used as countables if we refer to particular varieties. In this case they are often preceded by an adjective (a nice wine) or there is some kind of specification (a wine of high quality):

This region produces an excellent wine.
Kalamata produces some of the best olive oil in the world, it's an oil of very high quality.
The North Sea produces a light oil which is highly prized in the oil industry.

4. In informal English, drinks and some kinds of food which are normally uncountable can be counted particularly when we are making an order in a café or restaurant:

A (or One) beer please
Two teas and four coffees, please.

5. Some –ing forms can be countable when they refer to a specific thing or event: painting/ a good painting, drawing/ a few drawings, reading/ a reading.

countable ('specific')                                                           uncountable ('general')

Are these drawings by Goya?                                             I'm no good at drawing

He has a painting by Hockney.                                           Painting is my hobby

She gave a reading of her poems.                                      Reading is taught early

6. Some uncountables CANNOT be used as countables to refer to a single item or example. A quite different word must be used:

uncountable                                                            equivalent countable

bread                                                                         a loaf (=буханець)

clothing                                                                      a garment (=предмет одягу)

laughter                                                                     a laugh (=сміх)

luggage                                                                     a case, a bag (=скриня, торба)

poetry                                                                        a poem (=вірш)

money                                                                       a coin, a note (=монета, банкнота)

work                                                                          a job (=робота)

There are much more such equivalents. I suggest you doing these exercises to learn some more:

And more…

Thank you for staying with us!




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