Countable and uncountable nouns

When we speak of nouns as being countable or uncountable, we mean that some things can be counted while others cannot. Countable nouns name individual items that can addup; there can be one or more of them. Other things cannot be counted; they are considered collective rather than individual items. In many cases this distinction is easy tonunderstand. We all recognize that we can count items like books, tables, eggs, or mountains. We can easily imagine one or more of such items. And most of us recognize that it is not possible to count other things like water, dust, air, or ice cream. These things cannot easily be separated into individual items.

But many nouns are uncountable for less obvious reasons. Most concepts or abstract ideas like peace, happiness, wealth and knowledge are uncountable. So are many activities such as swimming, eating, and debauchery, and some conditions such as confusion, frustration, satisfaction, and certainty. These nouns are considered uncountable because they are not easily identified as single things--the idea of happiness can consist of many different things and can be different for different people--or because they refer to general activities rather than specific instances; eating refers to the activity in general, not any particular example. The names of most disciplines are also uncountable, for example, sociology, medicine, anthropology. Nouns ending in -ism are also usually uncountable, for example, feminism, optimism, patriotism.

Some uncountable nouns like money, homework, work, and gossip are very confusing for learners of English because they seem to refer to particular items, yet they are treated as general. When we speak of work, we are not thinking of a particular job or activity--we include the idea of what anyone might do in any job that would be considered doing work. Jobs are countable items that are specific instances of the general idea of work.

In the same way, homework is not the particular assignment or assignments a student does. It is the general idea of students doing assignments. When a student says, "I have to do my homework," he or she may mean one assignment or several assignments or parts of one or more assignments, so the student knows what particular activities are involved, but they are referred to as part of a generalized activity--my homework can be something different every day.

Note: As you have perhaps noticed, individual activities like jobs and assignments--which are closely identified with uncountable nouns like work and homework--are countable. That means that although you can't say "I have lots of homeworks to do," you can say "I have lots of assignments."

oney is an interesting example of an uncountable noun because, of course, lots of people love to count their money.

Also confusing for many students are the numerous English nouns that have both a countable and an uncountable sense. Depending on the context, these nouns sometimes refer to a particular thing and at other times to a general idea. In some cases this is not difficult. For example, Death (in general) is inevitable.

She missed work because there was a death in her family. However, many nouns are thought of as general more by custom than for any clear reason. Many food items fall into this category, e.g., chicken, cheese, and fruit.

Thus, we see a chicken on a farm, but we eat chicken; we say that the tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable, but we like fruit on our cereal.

Note: individual servings of food items are usually countable, but not the food itself, e.g.,

pie a piece of pie
bread a slice of bread
gum a stick of gum

Other nouns that can be either countable or uncountable include substances that things can be made of, like paper or glass. When you write an essay on paper, it becomes a paper. Other nouns in this category are words like wood and cloth, which refer to the material that may be made of many different varieties of tree or fabric. Thus, the material of an elm, an oak or a pine is all wood and linen, silk and cotton are all made into cloth.

Some common uncountable nouns

accuracy darkness fun inferiority
admiration economics furniture information
advice efficieny garbage integration
aggression electricity generosity intelligence
air enjoyment gravity irritability
assistance entertainment happiness isolation
behavior estimation health junk
boredom equipment heat justice
bravery evidence help knowledge
chemistry evolution homework laughter
clothing excitement honesty leisure
comprehension fame ignorance literature
courage foolishness immigration luck
luggage peace recreation stuff
machinery permission relaxation superiority
mail physics reliability survival
math poetry research tolerance
merchandise pollution sadness traffic
money poverty safety transportation
music pride scenery trouble
news productivity shopping violence
nonsense progress significance water
oxygen propaganda slang wealth
participation psychology snow weather
pay rain status wisdom

Some Nouns that can be either Countable or Uncountable

abuse drama jail reading
adulthood duck jealousy religion
afternoon education language revision
age environment law rock
anger evening liberty science
appearance exercise life school
art fact love shock
beauty faith lunch society
beer fear man sorrow
belief fiction marriage space
breakfast film meat speech
cheese fish metal spirit
chicken flavor milk stone
childhood food morning strength
cloth freedom murder surprise
college friendship nature teaching
commitment fruit paper temptation
competition glass passion theater
concern government people theory
crime hair personality time
culture hatred philosophy tradition
death history pleasure trouble
desire home power truth
dinner hope prejudice turkey
disappointment ideology pressure understanding
discrimination imagination prison weakness
disease injustice punishment wine
divorce innocence race writing

here are, of course, many additional uncountable nouns in English. If you are unsure of any particular noun, you can use a dictionary for learners of English. For instance, both Longman's Dictionary of American English and Longman's Dictionary of Contemporary English use the symbols [C] and [U] to identify countable and uncountable nouns.

(Copied from: Reading and Writing Center @ Hunter College)

 

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