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.
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’.
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.