Count and Noncount Nouns: Basic Rules
Adjectives with Countable and Uncountable Nouns
The Basic Rules: Count and Noncount Nouns
A count noun is one that can be expressed in plural form, usually with an "s." For example, "cat—cats," "season—seasons," "student—students."
A noncount noun is one that usually cannot be expressed in a plural form. For example, "milk," "water," "air," "money," "food." Usually, you can't say, "He had many moneys."
Count and Noncount Nouns with Adjectives
Most of the time, this doesn't matter with adjectives. For example, you can say, "The cat was gray" or "The air was gray." However, the difference between a countable and uncountable noun does matter with certain adjectives, such as "some/any," "much/many," and "little/few."
Some/Any: Some and any countable and uncountable nouns.
- "There is some water on the floor."
- "There are some students here."
- "Do you have any food?"
- "Do you have any apples?"
Much/Many: Much modifies only uncountable nouns. Many modifies only countable nouns.
- "We don't have much time to get this done."
- "Many Americans travel to Europe."
Little/Few: Little modifies only uncountable nouns.
- "He had little food in the house."
- "The doctor had little time to think in the emergency room."
Few modifies only countable nouns.
- "There are few doctors in town."
- "Few students like exams."
Other basic rules
A lot of/lots of: A lot of/lots of are informal substitutes for much and many. They are used with uncountable nouns when they mean much and with countable nouns when they mean many.
- "They have lots of (much) money in the bank."
- "A lot of (many) Americans travel to Europe."
- "We got lots of (many) mosquitoes last summer."
- "We got lots of (much) rain last summer."
A little bit of:A little bit of is informal and always precedes an uncountable noun.
- "There is a little bit of pepper in the soup."
- "There is a little bit of snow on the ground."
Enough: Enough modifies both countable and uncountable nouns.
- "There is enough money to buy a car."
- "I have enough books to read."
Plenty of: Plenty of modifies both countable and uncountable nouns.
- "They have plenty of money in the bank."
- "There are plenty of millionaires in Switzerland."
No: No modifies both countable and uncountable nouns.
- "There is no time to finish now."
- "There are no squirrels in the park."
Count and Noncount Nouns (with Plurals, Articles, and Quantity Words)
Section 1: Definition of Count and Noncount nouns
Count or Noncount?
The main difference between count and noncount nouns is whether you can count the things they refer to or not.
Count nouns refer to things that exist as separate and distinct individual units. They usually refer to what can be perceived by the senses.
I stepped in a puddle. (How many puddles did you step in? Just one.)
I drank a glass of milk. (Glasses of milk can be counted)
I saw an apple tree. (Apple trees can be counted)
Noncount nouns refer to things that can't be counted because they are thought of as wholes that can't be cut into parts. They often refer to abstractions and occasionally have a collective meaning (for example, furniture).
I dove into the water. (How many waters did you dive into? The question doesn't make any sense; therefore water is noncountable.)
I saw the milk spill. (How many milks? Milk cannot be counted.)
I admired the foliage. (How many foliages? Foliage cannot be counted.)
Think of the batter from which a cake is made. Before you put the batter into the oven, it can't be divided into parts because it's a thick liquid. Once it has been baked, it becomes solid enough to be cut into pieces. Noncount nouns are like cake batter; count nouns are like pieces of cake
Note: Since the issue is complicated and almost no rule is absolute, there will be exceptions to the above definitions; however, we can show some general patterns. Bear in mind that what is countable in another language may not be countable in English, and vice versa.
Section 2: Uses of Count and Noncount Nouns
From the definitions of mass and count given above you may have already guessed the rule for pluralizing them:
- most count nouns pluralize with -s
- noncount nouns don't pluralize at all
This rule works for all of the nouns in the lists of examples in the first section. Check this rule for yourself before reading further.
An Exception to the Rule
For a number of nouns, the rule needs slight revision. Certain nouns in English belong to both classes: they have both a noncount and a count meaning. Normally the noncount meaning is abstract and general and the count meaning concrete and specific. Compare:
- I've had some difficulties finding a job. (refers to a number of specific problems)
- The talks will take place in the Krannert building. (refers to a number of specific lectures)
- The city was filled with bright lights and harsh sounds. (refers to a number of specific lights and noises)
- She succeeded in school with little difficulty. (refers to the general idea of school being difficult)
- I dislike idle talk. (refers to talking in general)
- Light travels faster than sound. (refers to the way light and sound behave in general)
Note: A special case of the use of noncount nouns in a count sense has to do with classification. Sometimes a usually noncount noun can be understood as one item separate and distinct from other items of the same category. The nouns that function in this way often denote foods and beverages: food(s), drink(s), wine(s), bread(s), coffee(s), fruit(s), and so on. Examples:
- There are several French wines to choose from. (= kinds of wine)
- I prefer Sumatran coffees to Colombian. (= kinds of coffee)
- We use a variety of different batters in our bakery. (= kinds of batter)
A recent entry into this class is homework, which at least among some students has the count plural homeworks in addition to its noncount use. (For example, "You're missing three of the homeworks from the first part of the course.") Because this usage is not firmly established and is likely to be considered nonstandard, you should check with your instructor before using it in writing.
A Revision of the Rule
These exceptions require that the rule for pluralizing be revised: count nouns and nouns used in a count sense pluralize; noncount nouns and nouns used in a noncount sense do not.
The two possibilities in each half of the rule require different choices. If you know that a particular noun must be either count or noncount and cannot be both, you need to decide only if it is possible to pluralize the noun. On the other hand, if you know that a particular noun may be used in either a count or noncount sense, then you need to decide whether it is appropriate to pluralize.
To summarize, we may put the rule in a chart, like this:
|Pluralizes with -s||Doesn't Pluralize|
Nouns and Articles
Choosing which article to use (if any) with a noun is a complex matter because the range of choices depends on whether the noun in question is 1) count or noncount and 2) singular or plural. Both count nouns (whether singular or plural) and noncount nouns take articles.
Combinations of Nouns and Articles
The following chart shows which articles go with which kinds of nouns. Notice that this, that, these, and those have been included because, like the, they mark the noun that they modify as definite, which means that the noun refers 1) to a unique individual or 2) to some person, event, or object known to both the writer and reader from their general knowledge or from what has been previously mentioned in a piece of writing.
|a, an||the||this, that||these, those||no article|
I ate an apple.
I rode the bus.
Does she live in this house? No, she lives in that house over there.
I like to feed the birds.
Do you want these books? No, I want those books up there.
Cats are interesting pets.
The water is cold.
This milk is going sour.
Music helps me relax.
The following chart shows which quantity words go with which kinds of nouns. Note that quantity words can be used in combinations such as many more, many fewer, much more, and much less, any of which can be preceded by how to form questions or relative clauses. Negatives like not and no can also be applied to many of these terms.
|much, less, little, a little, very little||some, any, most, more, all, a lot of, no, none of the||many, both, several, few/fewer/fewest, a few, one of the, a couple of||each, every, any, one|
I practice every day.
I'd like one donut, please.
Can I have some chips?
She has a lot of books, and many are autographed.
I have fewer pencils than you.
Can I have some water?
She has a lot of strength, and much is due to her upbringing.
I have less courage than you.
Count and Noncount Nouns (with Articles and Adjectives)
Countable nouns refer to things that we can count. Such nouns can take either singular or plural form.
Concrete nouns may be countable.
There are a dozen flowers in the vase.
He ate an apple for a snack.
Collective nouns are countable.
She attended three classes today.
London is home to several orchestras.
Some proper nouns are countable.
There are many Greeks living in New York.
The Vanderbilts would throw lavish parties at their Newport summer mansion.
Uncountable nouns refer to things that we cannot count. Such nouns take only singular form.
Abstract nouns are uncountable.
The price of freedom is constant vigilance.
Her writing shows maturity and intelligence.
Some concrete nouns are uncountable (when understood in their undivided sense).
The price of oil has stabilized recently.
May I borrow some rice?
While uncountable nouns do not generally take a plural form, sometimes they may be pluralized when used in a countable sense. The difference between the uncountable and countable meanings of nouns that are used in either sense can be seen in the following chart:
|Uncountable Sense||Countable Sense|
|Art is often called limitation of
|I read a book aout the folkarts of Sweden.|
|Life is precious.||A cat has nine lives.|
|Religion has been a powerful force in history.||Many religions are practiced in the United States.|
|She has beautiful skin.||The hull of a kayak is made of animal skins.|
|Dr. Moulton is an expert in ancient Greek sculpture.||We have several sculptures in our home.|
|We use only recycled paper in our office.||Where are those important papers?|
Using Articles with Countable and Uncountable Nouns
A countable noun always takes either the indefinite (a, an) or definite (the) article when it is singular. When plural, it takes the definite article if it refers to a definite, specific group and no article if it is used in a general sense.
The guest of honor arrived late.
You are welcome as a guest in our home.
The guests at your party yesterday made a lot of noise.
Guests are welcome here anytime.
Uncountable nouns never take the indefinite article (a or an), but they do take singular verbs. The is sometimes used with uncountable nouns in the same way it is used with plural countable nouns, that is, to refer to a specific object, group, or idea.
Information is a precious commodity in our computerized world.
The information in your files is correct.
Sugar has become more expensive recently.
Please pass me the sugar.
Categories of Uncountable Nouns
|Abstract||Material||Generic||Non-Plurals with -s|
Quantity Adjectives with Countable and Uncountable Nouns
Both words modify either countable or uncountable nouns.
There are some cookies in the jar. (countable)
There is some water on the floor. (uncountable)
Did you eat any food? (uncountable)
Do you serve any vegetarian dishes? (countable)
Much modifies only uncountable nouns.
How much money will we need?
They ate so much cake that they started to feel sick.
Much effort will be required to solve this problem.
Many modifies only countable nouns.
How many children do you have?
They had so many books that they had to stack them in the hall.
Many Americans travel to Europe each year.
A lot of, Lots of
These words are informal substitutes for much and many.
Lots of effort will be required to solve this problem. (uncountable)
A lot of Americans travel to Europe each year. (countable)
Little, Quite a little, Few, Quite a few
Little and quite a littlemodify only uncountable nouns.
We had a little ice cream after dinner.
They offered little help for my problem. (meaning "only a small amount")
They offered quite a little help for my problem. (meaning "a large amount") (See quite a bit of, below.)
Few and quite a few modify only countable nouns.
A few doctors from the hospital play on the softball team.
Few restaurants in this town offer vegetarian dishes. (meaning "only a small number")
Quite a few restaurants in this town offer vegetarian dishes. (meaning "a large number")
A little bit of, Quite a bit of
These informal phrases usually precede uncountable nouns. Quite a bit of has the same meaning as quite a little and is used more commonly.
There's a little bit of pepper in the soup. (meaning "a small amount")
There's quite a bit of pepper in the soup. (meaning "a large amount")
This word modifies both countable and uncountable nouns.
I don't have enough potatoes to make the soup.
We have enough money to buy a car.
This term modifies both countable and uncountable nouns.
There are plenty of mountains in Switzerland.
She has plenty of money in the bank.
This word modifies both countable and uncountable nouns.
There were no squirrels in the park today.
We have no time left to finish the project.