In this lesson, you can learn about countable and uncountable nouns in English. What’s the difference between paper and a paper? Why do we say trousers are… but news is…? Why can’t you say, Can you give me an advice?
You’ll learn the answers to all these questions in this lesson. After you watch, make sure to review how to learn English grammar here!
Some nouns are countable. You can count them. For example, pens are countable. You can count them.
One pen, two pens, three pens, and so on.
Some nouns are uncountable. You can’t count them. For example, water is uncountable.
One water, two waters…? No, that doesn’t work. You can’t count water.
Do you know any other uncountable nouns?
You’ll see more examples in the next section, but here are three: money, rice and knowledge are all uncountable nouns.
Countable and uncountable nouns behave differently. They follow different rules.
First, uncountable nouns can’t be plural. That means you can’t say moneys, rices or knowledges. These forms don’t exist.
Secondly, you need to use a singular verb with uncountable nouns. For example:
This rice doesn’t taste right.
Your money is on the table.
His knowledge of this subject has improved significantly.
Next, you can’t use a or an with an uncountable noun. You can’t say a rice, a money or a knowledge. However, you can use some or any. For example:
Is there any rice left?
You’ll need some money for the bus.
Finally, we use different words to talk about quantities with countable and uncountable nouns.
With countable nouns, we use many to talk about large quantities, and few to talk about small quantities.
With uncountable nouns, we use much and little.
You can use a lot of or lots of with both countable and uncountable nouns.
There isn’t much rice left.
There aren’t many potatoes left.
There’s a little money in my pocket.
There are a few coins in that small box.
Okay, so now you know the basics about uncountable nouns and how to use them.
Next, an important question:
2. Which Nouns are Uncountable?
Many uncountable nouns are words for food and drink, such as pasta, meat, fruit, coffee, beer or milk.
Be careful, because fruit is uncountable, but vegetables are countable.
Many collective nouns are uncountable.
Collective nouns are nouns which describe a group of objects all together. For example, furniture, equipment, luggage or traffic.
Finally, abstract nouns are often uncountable. For example: knowledge, information, advice or progress.
Okay, I have a challenge for you.
You have three groups of nouns here: food & drink, collective nouns, and abstract nouns.
I want you to pause the video and find one more uncountable noun to add to each group.
That means you need to find one uncountable food or drink noun, one uncountable collective noun, and one uncountable abstract noun. Write down your answers.
Why are you still here? Pause the video and find your answers!
But, there’s a problem.
There are many possible answers you could have here. How can you check?
Easy: find a dictionary. You can use an online dictionary such as Longman, or a paper dictionary if you’re feeling a bit old school.
Look up the words you wrote down. In the dictionary, it should tell you if they’re countable or uncountable.
Some dictionaries do this by adding a ‘u’ for uncountable or a ‘c’ for countable after the noun. Different dictionaries have different styles.
So now you can check your answers. Were you correct?
Now, things get more complicated.
3. Nouns Which Can Be Countable or Uncountable
If nouns could only be countable or uncountable, this topic would be very simple.
However, many nouns can be both countable and uncountable, with different meanings.
For example, paper can be countable or uncountable.
Do you know the difference? What’s the difference between paper and a paper?
Paper is the material: what you write on.
A paper is another way to say a newspaper.
Let’s look at some more examples like this. Think about it: what’s the difference between:
Fish and a fish?
Glass and a glass?
Time and a time?
Ready? Let’s look at the answers:
Fish (uncountable) means the food. You eat fish.
A fish (countable) means one whole animal, either living or dead. Compare:
We eat a lot of fish. –> We eat a lot of fish in general.
There’s a fish in the toilet! –> One living fish.
He ate three whole fish. –> Three whole animals.
What about glass and a glass?
Glass is a material. A glass is something you drink out of. For example:
The sculpture was made of glass.
Would you like a glass of water?
Finally, how about time and a time?
Time is the general meaning of time. It’s such a basic idea that I can’t really explain it in more simple terms!
A time has a similar meaning to an occasion or a period.
Look at some examples:
I don’t have much free time.
How much time will you need to finish this?
There have been many times when I wanted to give up.
We had a good time at their barbecue.
Can you see the difference now?
So, there are many nouns which can be both countable and uncountable, often with different meanings.
There are too many examples to explain them all here, but I will give you one general idea which might be helpful.
Often, when a noun can be countable or uncountable, the uncountable noun has a general or collective meaning. The countable noun has a specific meaning.
For example, think about the word hair. It can be countable or uncountable.
Hair (uncountable) has a general meaning. It means, for example, the stuff that grows on your head.
Hair (countable) has a more specific meaning.
Have you ever made the mistake in English where you say something like:
My friend Jacob has a long hair.
If you say this, you mean that your friend has one long hair.
That’s probably not what you wanted to say, right?
My friend Jacob has long hair.
To really understand countable and uncountable nouns, you’ll have to remember a lot of information. However, this basic idea can help you: uncountable nouns are more general and abstract; countable nouns are more specific.
4. Some Other Strange English Nouns
In this lesson, we’ve talked about countable nouns, uncountable nouns, and nouns which can be both.
There are a few strange nouns, which don’t fit cleanly into any of these categories.
For example, we said at the beginning that uncountable nouns can’t be plural. You can’t say rices or knowledges.
That’s generally true, but there are some uncountable nouns which can only be plural. They are:
You can’t make these nouns singular. You can’t say one police or one trouser.
Remember to use a plural verb with these nouns. For example:
The police have interviewed all the witnesses.
These trousers don’t fit well.
Careful with the scissors—they’re sharp.
Another strange word is news. It’s uncountable and singular, even though it ends with ‘s’. So, don’t say:
The news are depressing at the moment.
The news is depressing at the moment.
Finally, there are some collective nouns like staff, team or crew. Some of these are uncountable (like staff), and others can be countable, like team or crew.
These nouns are generally made plural in British English. In the UK, we say:
The staff aren’t happy with the new uniform.
The team are playing well at the moment.
However, in the US, these collective nouns are often singular. In the US, you might hear:
The staff isn’t happy with the new uniform.
The team is playing well at the moment.
Both are possible, but try to be consistent. If you make these nouns plural, then they should always be plural. If you make them singular, you should always make them singular.
That said, native speakers aren’t always consistent. Don’t worry about it too much, and don’t be surprised if you hear both forms.
Okay, we have one more thing to do.
The point of uncountable nouns is that you can’t count them.
But sometimes you need to.
What can you do?
5. Making Uncountable Nouns Countable
Take an uncountable noun you saw earlier: rice.
There’s no way to count rice directly. Rice can never be countable. You can never say three rices.
But, sometimes you need to count things, even if they’re uncountable. How can you count rice?
Actually, there are many ways to do it.
Rice is made up of single grains of rice. Here is one grain of rice.
You can also have a bag of rice, a packet of rice, or a portion of rice.
By adding a noun + of, you can make an uncountable noun countable.
Let’s see how this works in some example sentences:
There was a single grain of rice left at the bottom of his bowl.
Can you get two of those big bags of rice?
We’d like three portions of rice, please.
Like with rice, there are often many different nouns you can add to make an uncountable noun countable.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that you need to add different nouns depending on the uncountable noun you’re using.
Let’s practice this so you can see what I mean.
Here are five uncountable nouns. How could you make them countable?
Think about your answers.
Ready? Let’s look together.
You can give someone a piece of advice, or two pieces of advice if you’re feeling generous. Add a piece of to make advice countable.
A piece of is very useful, because you can use it to make many uncountable nouns countable.
You can also have a piece of bread. With bread you have other possibilities: a loaf of bread or a slice of bread.
What about money? You can have a sum of money or an amount of money. For example, you could say:
He lost a large amount of money trying to play the stock market.
For furniture, you could say a piece of furniture or possibly an item of furniture, although this is very formal, and not common.
Finally, what about coffee? You can have a cup of coffee, a packet of coffee, a spoonful of coffee, or a pot of coffee.
In all of these cases, there are other possible answers. However, these are the most common ones.