Countability – grammar codes

by Dom Glennon​​


Advices and informations

Have you ever noticed strange codes in square brackets on entries in Cambridge Dictionaries Online and wondered what they mean? These are grammar codes, giving you a brief summary of how that word behaves grammatically. More information can be obtained by hovering your cursor over the code, and there’s a full page of them here, but we thought we’d look at some in more detail.

Grammar codes on Cambridge Dictionaries Online
Grammar codes on Cambridge Dictionaries Online

First up, let’s look at the countability codes: these codes apply to nouns only, and tell you whether they can be singular or plural.

[C] is for countable – countable nouns can be either singular or plural, and in the singular can be preceded by ‘a’, ‘an’ or ‘one’. Examples of countable nouns are boy, girl, car, hat.

[U] is for uncountable – uncountable nouns do not have a plural form, and are never preceded by ‘a’, ‘an’, or ‘one’. Examples of uncountable nouns are butter, ice, jewellery, magic.

The final code is [S] for singular – these nouns behave like countable nouns, but are never used in the plural form, for example the Internet.

Learners of English often have trouble remembering which nouns can be made plural and which cannot. From our research in the Cambridge Learner Corpus – a vast database of learners’ exams compiled over the last 20 years – we can identify not only which words learners most frequently get wrong in this regard, but also the languages whose native speakers most commonly tend to make these mistakes.

So which words are the hardest to get right? Well, first of all, it turns out that there are far more mistakes made where an uncountable noun is made plural than the other way around, which is probably hardly surprising. Information is by far the most problematic word in this regard, with advice second. There’s a list of the 20 most common errors here, but we thought it would be far more interesting to see the full range as an interactive graphic – follow this link or the image at the top of the page.

The languages whose speakers most commonly make these mistakes include French, Italian, Chinese, Portuguese, German, Spanish, Greek, Polish, Turkish, Russian.

We’ve also created an interactive infographic to show exactly how different language learners make these mistakes – again, click through on the image to explore further:


So how do you use these nouns in the singular? Well, expressions like a piece of and a bit of with the uncountable noun can be used, or the determiner some:

He bought a very expensive piece of furniture for his new apartment.
Can I give you a bit of advice?
They gave me some information about courses and scholarships and things.

For more information on countability, see this page from English Grammar Today.

Find out more about the Cambridge Learner Corpus

22 thoughts on “Countability – grammar codes

  1. hi

    thx nice post, there seems to be a 404 for

    also do you have stats for the number of misuses of each uncountable noun compared to number of total uses of each uncountable noun?

    i did such a calculation using the EFCAMDAT for French learners and found luggage topping the list with information coming second, you can have a look here


  2. Dom Glennon

    Hi, and thank you for the feedback! Apologies for the broken link – that is now fixed. I didn’t think about comparing erroneous uses to correct uses of each word – that would be interesting. I’ll try to add that in if I have some time.

  3. okey erinne

    Thank you for this piece. Much more people than you can imagine make these mistakes. However, I’d like to make a request. I read the post on English Softeners (the use of Could, Would, etc) sometime ago. Could you please do a post on when to use ‘Will’ and when to use ‘Would’ because nearly everyone i know uses ‘Would’ where i feel ‘Will’ is more appropriate. Eg I would see you in church tomorrow.
    I will see you in church tomorrow sounds a lot more appropriate.

    1. Blair Deseaux

      Re: “will” versus “would”

      You are correct that “I will see you in church tomorrow” is correct, assuming that this is a regular, simple future tense construction and that there isn’t more to the sentence.

      However, if we added more to the sentence, that could change. In the following examples, “would” must be used instead of “will”:
      (1) “I would help you move those boxes, but the doctor said that I should not do any heavy lifting this soon after my operation.”
      (2) “He would get better grades in school if he had a tutor.”

      Also, “would” is used instead of “will” when describing a habitual action in the past, or when describing something that occurred in the past, more recently than another event in the past (which can be thought of as the past tense version of the future tense):
      (3) Habitual Past: “Every summer, my parents and I would take a road trip to visit my grandmother in Minnesota.”
      (4) Past Tense Version of Future Tense: “I knew that he would forget to lock the door when he left.”

      Note: Sentence (4) means that he already forgot to lock the door when he left, and the speaker knew that this would happen before it happened. Compare this with the present tense version, which would be used if he hasn’t left yet, but the speaker is still sure that he will forget to lock the door when he does leave: “I know that he will forget to lock the door when he leaves.”

    1. I’m sorry, I thought I’d replied to this. As the other respondent said, it is ‘piece of advice’ – ‘advice’ is never used in the plural form. You can also say ‘pieces of advice’, but it is more common just to say ‘some advice’.

  4. Thanks Cambridge! I sue you every day as a TEFL English teacher. One word which is cropping up more and more often is “training” used as a noun. We did or had a “training”. It’s so wrong to the native speaker, isn’t it? Is the usage changing??

    1. GardenNinja

      I am American, and I would say either “take / took training” or “have / had training.” The meanings are slightly different. In the first, the training would be more formal – essentially the same as “take / took a class.” The second one could be either formal or informal training, and therefore is more general.

    2. Blair Deseaux

      American and native English speaker here. To me, “a training” sounds fine. It refers to “a training session” and can be used in the singular or plural (it’s a countable noun). For example:

      “There’s a fire safety training that we have to attend this afternoon.”

      “You will need to complete all five trainings before you can start working with radioactive materials.” (This would typically be used to describe online/computerized training modules that the trainee completes independently.)

      Note that “training” can also be used as an uncountable noun, as in:
      “Vocational training is valuable for these students.”

    1. Ned

      “And if they died” I came across this in a novel called The Beggar’s Strike. I thought it should be “And if they die” let me know which of the correct usage.

  5. Pingback: New words – 17 February 2020 – About Words – Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog – Get Proficiency in English

  6. Ingeborg Svea Nordén

    I’d add the Nordic languages (Swedish, Norwegian, Danish) to the “might cause countability mistakes” list. All three have singular/plural forms for “[piece of] furniture”, “[item of] news”, “[piece of] advice/information”.

  7. Blair Deseaux

    The article notes that French speakers most commonly made mistakes with words like “information” and “advice.” It’s worth noting that in French, these words are typically used in the plural form:

    English: “Medical records are confidential *information*.”
    French: “Les dossiers médicaux sont des *informations* confidentielles.”
    (French “renseignements” is a synonym, also plural in form.)

    English: “He gave her some *advice*.”
    French: “Il lui a donné des *conseils*.”

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