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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.

 

Some uncountable nouns can be used in the plural as well, depending on the meaning or context of the word. Take a look at these sentences:

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, 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.

 

You may also be interested in:

Verbs

Adjectives

Pronouns

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