Count and Non-Count Nouns‏‎ in English Grammar

ICAL TEFLThere are different ways of classifying nouns and one of the most important, grammatically speaking, is to classify a noun as Count or Non-Count. (Also known as Countable and Non-Countable; count nouns are sometimes also known as Mass Nouns.)

Most nouns are countable; this means we can literally count the objects (or concepts) they refer to. We can, for example, stand in a field and count:

4 goats and 3 cows

A countable noun has two forms: singular and plural. We use the singular form when we talk about one object (or concept), and we use the plural form when we talk about more than one object (or concept). We can say:

There is 1 book on the table, and 3 books on the chair.

I have 1 house, but the Queen has 15 houses.

When the countable noun is the subject of the sentence‏‎ then the verb‏‎ is singular or plural, depending on the noun (this is called subject-verb agreement‏‎):

The book is on the table.

The cars are in the garage.

However, some objects (or concepts) cannot be counted. We cannot for example stand on the beach and count:

* 4 sands and 3 waters

[Note the asterisk before a sentence means it contains bad grammar.]

Instead we are more likely to talk about sand and water in more general terms:

A lot of sand and loads of water.

Here, sand and water are examples of non-countable nouns and they only have a singular form:

The sand is hot.

The water is cold.

So we cannot use them with a plural verb:

* The sand are hot.

* The water are cold.

Common non-countable nouns include liquids, a lot of foodstuffs as well as some miscellaneous items:

liquids beer, cola, juice, lemonade, milk, tea, water, whiskey, wine
foodstuffs butter, cheese, grain, meat, pepper, rice, salt, sugar, wheat
miscellaneous advice, furniture, hair, knowledge, luggage, money, news, pasta, progress, research, spaghetti, toothpaste

Non-Count Nouns and Verbs

If the non-countable noun is the subject of a sentence, we generally use it with a singular verb:

My money is in my wallet.

Milk is very good for babies.

This butter smells strange!

This whiskey tastes awful!

Students often make mistakes with these non-countable nouns so be sure to point out the correct forms here:

furniture, hair, money, news, research, spaghetti

Remember, non-countable nouns have a singular verb and do not have a plural form:

He gave me some information about flights to Rome.

The news is not good.

The spaghetti is ready now.

I've got a lot of work to do.

The following word does not exist in good English:

* informations

Non-Countable Expressions

When we use non-countable nouns, we often use them in expressions to denote quantity:

3 cups of tea

2 glasses of whiskey

With some common expressions, we can delete the container and make the non-countable noun, countable:

I'd like 3 teas and 2 whiskies, please.

So although this looks like tea and whisky is countable, it is not really. We have counted the container and then left it out.

Two Meanings

Meanwhile, some nouns are both countable and non-countable but with different meanings:

He suffers badly from the cold.

I've had 3 colds this year.

In the first example, cold is non-countable and refers to cold weather and low temperature; in the second example, a cold refers to a blocked nose and lots of sneezing.

Examples

Often when we talk about an example of a non-countable noun then we make the noun countable:

I'd like some wine, please.

This is a fine wine.

In the first example we are talking about wine in general; in the second we are talking about a specific wine which represents wine as a whole and so we use it as if it were a countable noun.

Quantity

When we talk about quantity with countable and non-countable nouns there are a number of different ways we can do this.

To express quantity with a countable noun, we can use a number and a plural noun:

There are three bananas on the table.

He has twenty-seven sheep on the farm.

If the number is one, we usually use an article instead:

He has a cold.

There's a cow in the bedroom!

Or we can be non-specific and talk about approximate numbers:

There are some people in the office.

There are a few problems.

To express quantity with a non-countable noun, we cannot use a number and a plural form:

* There are three rices in the bowl.

* Can you give me four informations?

Instead, we must use some, any, much, little and a singular form:

Here is some sugar.

There isn't much wine in the bottle.

When we talk about a non-countable noun, we can use an expression which shows an amount or a container:

{quantity} + {amount/container} + of

There is one box of rice in the cupboard.

He drank three glasses of wine.

I'd like a pound of cheese, please.

Some other common expressions include: bar, bottle, box, cup, jar, kilo, l oaf, meter, mile, packet, piece, pound, sheet, slice, tin, ton, tube, yard.

Nomenclature

As we said at the beginning, different grammarians and teachers use different terms for these types of nouns.

countable = count = mass

non-countable = non-count

Interestingly, if you check the n-gram you'll see that, in order of popularity, it goes like this:

  1. count nouns
  2. mass nouns
  3. countable nouns

Which you use is up to you!

See Also

Counting Cards - an activity to practice count/non-count nouns with your class.

Sticky Fingers‏‎ - how to demonstrate countable/non-countable nouns to your class.

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