Transitive or intransitive; Countable or uncountable – what does it all mean??

by Liz Walter

RonTech2000/iStock/Getty Images Plus
RonTech2000/iStock/Getty Images Plus

It’s all very well being told that we use many in front of countable plural nouns and much before uncountable nouns, but what happens if you don’t know what ‘countable’ and ‘uncountable’ mean? People like me, who write about language, use these terms all the time but why should we assume that our readers know them? After all, they are quite technical, and most people in the street wouldn’t know their meaning. That’s why I thought we’d take a step back this week and look at a few really basic terms that help learners understand language.

First, countable and uncountable. A countable noun is one like apple or chair that can form a plural.  If we have four chairs, we can count them. An uncountable noun (sometimes called a mass noun) is one like air or sugar – they are things that you can’t count. It’s important to know the difference because it affects the way other words (like much and many) are used with the nouns. In the dictionary on this site, countable nouns have [C] written by them and uncountable nouns have [U].

Let’s move on to sentences. When we talk about grammar, it’s often important to know what is the subject and what is the object of a sentence. In very basic terms, the subject is the person or thing that does the action or causes the action. The object is the person or thing affected by the action. Subjects and objects are usually nouns or groups of words acting as nouns. In these sentences, the bold words are the subject and the underlined words are the object:

Ulrika baked a cake.

                The chair in the corner has a broken leg.

Relating to that, when you learn a verb, you need to know if it is transitive or intransitive. A transitive verb such as repair or encourage always has an object. You need to say who or what you are repairing or encouraging. An intransitive verb such as sneeze or laugh has no object. There are also lots of verbs that can be transitive and intransitive:

He doesn’t like to drive. (intransitive)

                He enjoys driving the truck. (transitive)

In the dictionary on this site, intransitive verbs have [I] written by them, transitive verbs have [T], and verbs that can be both have [I, T].

These are probably the most important terms you need to know, but there are a few others that we often use. Modal verbs are verbs such as can or might. (for more information about these see this blog post)

Phrasal verbs are verbs such as give up and put up with that are formed from a verb with one or two particles. They often have a meaning that is very different from the meaning of the verb on its own. There are many posts about phrasal verbs here.

Passive verbs are used when the subject rather than the object is the one experiencing the effect of the action, as in the sentence: The play was written by Shakespeare. (for more information on passive, see this blog post)

Let me know if there are any other grammar terms you don’t understand!

23 thoughts on “Transitive or intransitive; Countable or uncountable – what does it all mean??

  1. tendai daka

    Countable used in plurals & uncountable won’t be used in pluraas

    Sent from my Windows Phone ________________________________

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  5. Hadeel Hammam

    English speakers used to say fewer people and less cheese. Now it more common to say less people. is it a kind of pragmatic change; a change in language rule or is it a result of hypercorrection.

    1. Abo Azn

      It is not a pragmatic change, it’s a mistake. You never use “much” with people, you use “many”. Same with less vs fewer.

      1. Liz Walter

        I think it depends what you mean by ‘mistake’. Of course, you can say ‘fewer people’, but in contemporary, everyday English, it is very common to say ‘less people’, and not considered incorrect by most people.

  6. Aswathi

    Thankyou for this useful post… Although one might think they knw d meaning of these words as they r basics of grammar but wen they r asked d exact meaning they can’t say it and get confused…this post clears all dat confusion…

    1. Nenad

      But what about a sentence like “The most of numbers, from ” to are composite numbers.”, meaning “The most of numbers, from ” to are not prime numbers.”? Is this correct?

  7. Nenad

    Sorry for being so “noisy”, but I actually typed “from some number to some, larger, number”, not just one “open quotation mark”, “to” and “blank”. Your “input system” must have “reinterpreted” my typing … Sorry once more.

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