by Liz Walter
Many dictionaries for learners of English (including the one on this site) show whether nouns are ‘countable’ or ‘uncountable’, often using the abbreviations C and U. Countable nouns are things that you can count – one dog, two dogs, twenty dogs, etc. Uncountable nouns are things that you cannot count – water, sadness, plastic, etc.
It is important to know whether a noun is countable or uncountable, otherwise you are likely to make basic grammar mistakes. For example, countable nouns can have indefinite articles and can form plurals, but uncountable nouns cannot:
You should bring a coat. (‘coat’ is a countable noun)
I have three winter coats.
The teacher gave us a homework. (‘homework’ is an uncountable noun)
We have lots of homeworks.
If you have countable and uncountable nouns in your own language, you need to be very careful because they may not be the same ones. If I had £1 for every time one of my students has said or written ‘an advice’ or ‘some informations’, I would be very rich by now! In English, advice and information are both uncountable nouns, so they cannot have ‘an’ in front of them and they cannot be made plural.
Other common uncountable words that often cause problems are: equipment, furniture, transport, knowledge, countryside, traffic, research, progress, evidence, machinery.
You also need to know whether a noun is countable or uncountable in order to decide whether to say much or many. ‘Many’ is used with plural countable nouns and ‘much’ with uncountable nouns:
How many brothers and sisters do you have?
How much brothers and sisters do you have?
How much money do you have?
Some and any are used with plural countable nouns and uncountable nouns, but not with singular countable nouns:
We don’t have any eggs/sugar.
Would you like some mushrooms/cheese?
Do you have any coat?
Sometimes we may want to make an uncountable noun more like a singular countable one. We do this by using a quantity expression before it:
She gave us an advice/information.
She gave us a piece of advice/information.
We bought a few furnitures/clothings.
We bought a few items of furniture/clothing.
Finally, some uncountable nouns end in ‘s’. They include activities such as aerobics, athletics, gymnastics and darts; academic subjects such as economics, linguistics, politics and physics and illnesses such as measles, mumps, rabies and diabetes. These nouns look like countable plurals, but they are uncountable and therefore need a singular verb:
Linguistics is a very interesting subject.
Aerobics makes you fit.
You will probably notice that some words in the dictionary are labelled both C and U. In my next post, I’ll look at some of these words and explain how nouns can be both countable and uncountable.