One of the mysteries of the English language finally explained.
Countable and uncountable nouns
Nouns can be either countable or uncountable. Countable nouns (or count nouns) are those that refer to something that can be counted. They have both singular and plural forms (e.g. cat/cats; woman/women; country/countries). In the singular, they can be preceded by a or an. Most nouns come into this category.
A smaller number of nouns do not typically refer to things that can be counted and so they do not regularly have a plural form: these are known as uncountable nouns (or mass nouns). Examples include: rain, flour, earth, wine, or wood. Uncountable nouns can't be preceded by a or an. Many abstract nouns are typically uncountable, e.g. happiness, truth, darkness, humour.
|Would you like some coffee?||uncountable because it's referring to the drink in general|
|He ordered a coffee.||countable, because it's referring to a cup of coffee|
|There's no truth in the rumours.||uncountable, because it refers to the quality or state of being true|
|The fundamental truths about human nature.||countable, because it's referring to facts or beliefs that are true|
In the Oxford Dictionary of English and the New Oxford American Dictionary, nouns that are chiefly uncountable are described as ‘mass nouns’. This type of noun entry may also include an example sentence showing a countable use of the type described above. For example:
- beer noun [mass noun] an alcoholic drink made from yeast-fermented malt flavoured with hops: a pint of beer | [count noun] he ordered a beer.
There are some words that should only be used with countable nouns and some that you should only use with uncountable nouns. Here are the main examples:
|word||with countable noun?||with uncountable noun?||examples|
|few, fewer||✓||✗||fewer students; few cars|
|little, less, least||✗||✓||less food; little time|
|many, several||✓||✗||several books; many changes|
|much||✗||✓||much pleasure; much sleep|
You often hear people using less with countable nouns (e.g. ‘there are less cars outside the school gates’). Although it's a common mistake, it is still a mistake and you should try to avoid making it in formal writing or speaking.
Back to nouns.
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