Home Language Uncountable Nouns

Uncountable Nouns

Uncountable Nouns
There is a secondhand bookshop at 56 Charing Cross Road in London that bears the name ‘Any Amount of Books’. It is an acclaimed place to browse, but surely it ought to be called ‘Any Number of Books’ as a book is not an uncountable noun. The proprietor not doubt knows this. If he really liked the word ‘amount’, ‘Any Amount of Literature’ would have been more correct, but would it have been better?

Learners of English often struggle with uncountable nouns, that is nouns that cannot be counted. You can have ‘three squirrels, ‘six earthquakes’, or ‘twenty gargoyles’. These are countable nouns, but you can’t have ‘four weathers’, ‘eight pollutions’, or ‘eleven traffics’.  These nouns, also described as mass nouns, are uncountable.

Countable nouns can usually have a singular form and a plural form and they usually refer to things. Most countable nouns become plural by adding an ‘s’ at the end of the word (or in some cases, ‘es’ as in ‘boxes’). There are quite a few exceptions though. Nouns can be mutated: child = children, mouse = mice. Latin or Greek forms can be kept: criterion = criteria and fungus = fungi. And nouns that end in certain letters can have irregular plurals: a consonant and a y, as in baby = babies, an f or fe as in leaf = leaves, or an o as in hero = heroes. But this is to deviate, which is almost inevitable when discussing the ins and outs of the English language.

Chapter 2 of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland begins “Curiouser and curiouser! cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English)”. These days ‘curiouser and curiouser’ would more likely be used to politely express disbelief rather than a sense of wonder, and such might be the reaction of students of the English Language students wrestling with uncountable nouns.

Uncountable nouns are for the things or substances such as tea, sand, water, air, rice, that cannot be divided into separate elements, we cannot ‘count’ them. They are often collective nouns: equipment, furniture, luggage; or abstract ideas, concepts, or qualities such as anger, beauty, fear, knowledge, love. Uncountable nouns do not usually have a plural form. We cannot say sugars, angers, knowledges.

Why do we have these uncountable nouns? Many of these nouns are countable in other languages but not in English. This might be connected with the way English speakers picture these nouns as a single concept or one big thing which is hard to divide. But there are no rules as to when a noun is countable, and hence have a plural form, and when a noun is uncountable, and this apparent randomness makes it very difficult for people learning the language.

Whilst countable nouns can be quantified by saying ‘a meal’, ‘few holidays’, or ‘many books’, we can’t say ‘a rice’ or ‘a few milk’. We have to say an amount of something, that is quantify it: ‘a grain of rice’, ‘bottles of milk’, ‘a burst of sunshine’, or ‘a piece of research’. So where something is described in this way, it is a sure sign that you are dealing with an uncountable noun.

Uncountable nouns are usually preceded by: Countable nouns are usually preceded by:
some some money these orthose, each or every, either orneither these plants, each day, neither game
a little, less, or least a little salt, less homework few or fewer few cars, fewer students
enough, lots of, plenty of or much enough rice, lots of sleep, much sleep several ormany several books, many changes

And uncountable nouns are only used with a singular verb, ‘the news is very worrying’, ‘your luggage looks heavy’.

The wide variety of uncountable nouns is illustrated in the table below. Some of these nouns may appear to have countable equivalents. Cloth can be cloths when referring to cleaning cloths, but the meaning of cloth, as in a bolt of cloth, is different. And in ‘I couldn’t see anything as there was no light’, the meaning of light, as a form of energy, is different from ‘There were too many lights on the Christmas tree’.

Materials/Substances Qualities/Emotions Clothing Learning
air aggression clothes advice
aluminum anger clothing aid
blood commitment jeans attention
carbon compassion knickers assistance
chalk confidence pants content
cloth courage pyjamas evidence
concrete damage shorts help
cotton delight tights homework
dirt determination trousers information
dust dignity underwear intelligence
fabric enjoyment   knowledge
glass fear Drink news
gold fun alcohol progress
hair guilt beer punctuation
ice happiness coffee research
iron harm juice spelling
leather hate milk training
metal humour tea understanding
oxygen hunger water vocabulary
paper innocence wine
petrol irony whisky Business
plastic laughter accommodation
porcelain love Food advertising
power loyalty bacon business
sand melancholy beef cash
silver passion bread commerce
soap patience butter currency
steel pride cake data
stone reliability cheese distribution
timber sadness chocolate employment
wood stamina dessert engineering
wool strength fish hospitality
thirst flour labour
Energy vengeance fruit machinery
coal vision garlic management
electricity warmth honey money
energy wisdom ice cream production
fuel jam publicity
gas Abstract/Concepts jelly safety
heat applause meat trade
light chaos pasta wealth
magnetism corruption pepper work
oil danger rice
radiation democracy salt Activities
steam fiction soup ballet
  freedom spaghetti boating
Natural Events gossip sugar cooking
darkness height toast dancing
hail luck driving
humidity magic Languages jogging
lightning nonsense Arabic leisure
rain peace Chinese listening
sleet quality English reading
snow quantity French recreation
sunshine racism Hindi running
weather room Italian shopping
wind silence Japanese sleeping
  space Portuguese smoking
Outdoors speed Russian speaking
grass symmetry Spanish studying
ground time swimming
land truth Subjects/Fields travel
litter unity archaeology walking
mud validity architecture writing
nature violence arithmetic yoga
pavement width art
pollution biology Sport
rubbish Life/Health chemistry athletics
scenery adulthood commerce baseball
seaside beauty economics basketball
smoke childhood education bridge
soil fame engineering chess
traffic hair ethics cricket
transportation mankind evolution football
vegetation vitality grammar golf
wildlife weight history hockey
  welfare justice poker
youth literature rugby
mathematics soccer
Household music sport
baggage physics tennis
bedding photography  
cutlery poetry
equipment politics
furniture psychology
flooring sociology
housework vocabulary
washing-up liquid
washing powder

But there are also nouns which can be countable and uncountable depending not on what they mean but on how they are used. You may say ‘he has long blonde hair’, as ‘hair’ is uncountable’ but when referring to individual hairs as in ‘I’m getting a few grey hairs’, it is countable. The names of animals, such as ‘chicken’ or ‘lamb’ are counted when referring to the animals themselves, but are uncounted when referring to their meat: ‘I’d like chicken tonight’.

But in everyday usage, we don’t stick to the rules. We’ll have two beers, four teas, one with two sugars, a coffee, and three ice-creams for the kids, thank you.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Pin It on Pinterest

We use cookies in order to give you the best possible experience on our website. By continuing to use this site, you agree to our use of cookies.