Countable or uncountable, and why it matters

Sergey Ryumin / Moment / Getty Images

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.

 

47 thoughts on “Countable or uncountable, and why it matters

  1. Claudine

    One uncountable noun ending in ‘s’ that could be added to the list is news. It is difficult for French students to use a singular verb -what is the news? the news is good- since les nouvelles is a plural and need a plural verb!

      1. Joshua

        I loved the article but would have liked to see my personal pet peeve. The countable error I see everywhere I go is the “ten items or less” signs which should be “10 items or fewer”. I did know a checkout clerk who put up their own, corrected sign at their place of employment.

    1. Grand Albert

      I guess maybe you can say: “This piece of news is good” to avoid confusion but I saw it is not very usual. This kind of confusion can happen also in my language, Italian.

      1. Liz Walter

        Yes, we’d be more likely to say: ‘That’s good news’, but we could say for example ‘I have a piece of news I think you’ll like’.

  2. Nadun Ratnayake

    Hi Liz , Thank you very much for posting this informative article about countable and uncountable nouns.To be honest, I always had a confusion of not having indefinite article before a noun ( I did not know until now that it was because they were uncountable nouns☺). So , keep your good work up of enlightening guys like us about the unseen patterns of grammar in Language of English.

  3. Victor

    About the puzzle of “any” (Some and any are used with plural countable nouns and uncountable nouns, but not with singular countable nouns), which one should be more suitable,
    1. Is there any question to ask the speaker?
    2. Are there any questions to ask the speaker?
    Thanks a lot.

  4. Lucas

    Hello, Liz. I’ve been following some of your posts and they’re all extremely helpful. Thank you for the good work made available through the blog.
    I’ve seen a few times in American series, though not much frequently, people saying “a water”…
    For example:
    A: I went to get her water and she ran away.
    B: Did you let her all by herself here and went to get her a water? (I imagine a water equals a glass of water, in the context of the scene)

    Do people in England also say such a thing?

    Thanks in advance,

    Lucas

    1. Liz Walter

      It sounds quite unlikely to me. In theory, it’s possible in the context of being in a pub or cafe, but it would be much more common to say ‘some water’ or ‘a bottle/glass of water’.

      1. Lucas

        Hi Liz, thanks a lot for the reply.

        Yeah, it does seem unlikely to me too, especially for being a non-native speaker and having always been pointed out to by teachers that it’s completely wrong to say such a thing. I guess that’s quite Ame.
        If you ever want to check it out, it happened in the series Suits, season 01 – episode 06, at the moment 05:36. The precise words were “You left her alone to get her a water?”.

        Regards,

        Lucas

      2. Denis Kvochka

        Hello, Liz.
        Thank you for your articles.
        Could you explain why did you omit ‘a’ before ‘cafe’ in your previous answer:
        ‘…it’s possible in the context of being in a pub or cafe…’?
        Thanks.

      3. Liz Walter

        Denis – because if you link two countable nouns with ‘and’ or ‘or’, you only need to put an article in front of the first one, although it is not wrong to put them twice.

  5. Castus Cuba

    Thanks,but how correct is it to use ‘much’ on a countable noun like MONEY instead of ‘many’?.Example;how much do have with you Liz,one US dollar says Liz.Anticipating ur response via my email

    1. Liz Walter

      We say ‘how much’ as a short form of ‘how much money and money is uncountable: that’s why it’s ‘much’. Dollar is countable, so you’d have to say ‘How many dollars do you have?’ although that’s a very unlikely sentence.

  6. Spring

    Hi Liz,
    I’ve said “Is there any problem?”.
    But according to your article, I should’ve said “Are there any problems?”

    1. Liz Walter

      Yes, or ‘Is there a problem.’ However, I must say that your sentence doesn’t sound totally wrong to me – I think it might be possible in a fairly informal situation – just don’t write it in an exam!

    1. Liz Walter

      Salad and pizza can be C or U depending on whether you are talking about the food in general or a single portion/dish of it, as described above. Toast and cereal would be U in almost all cases, though it is possible to imagine a sentence such as ‘It is made from a mixture of four different cereals.’ I can’t think of a plausible context for making ‘toast’ countable, though someone else might!

  7. Duncan

    My students struggle with “Do you like dog?” versus “Do you like dogs?” – I though this was an obvious place to go from the picture, but…

  8. Hieu Nguyen

    Hi Liz, thank you very much. It helps us a lot. Could you please explain what’s wrong with “do you have any coat” and how to fix it?

    1. Liz Walter

      See this part of my post: 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?

      Coat is a singular not a plural noun, so you need to say ‘Do you have a coat?’

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