Count and Noncount Nouns (with Plurals, Articles, and Quantity Words)
This handout discusses the differences between count nouns and noncount nouns. Count nouns can be pluralized; noncount nouns cannot.
Contributors:Paul Lynch, Allen Brizee
Last Edited: 2011-10-19 12:41:15
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.