I love coffee/Would you like a coffee? Words that can be countable and uncountable

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by Liz Walter

In my last post I talked about why it is important to know whether words in English are countable or uncountable. However, I didn’t mention the fact that many words can be both countable and uncountable. This post discusses some of the reasons for this.

Food and drink is an area where words are commonly countable or uncountable. Often, the substance is uncountable, but a single portion (especially in the context of ordering something in a café) is countable:

This café serves excellent coffee. (uncountable: substance)

They ordered three coffees. (countable: three cups of coffee)

In addition, we often make foods countable when we talk about particular types of them:

I don’t like too much cheese on my pizzas. (uncountable: substance)

They make a wide range of blue cheeses. (countable: specific types)

In fact, we make this distinction between many other uncountable substances and countable types of those substances:

All the furniture is made from real wood. (uncountable: substance)

The woods they use are oak and mahogany. (countable: specific types)

In a similar way, we sometimes use uncountable nouns to talk about processes, situations, conditions etc. and countable nouns to talk about specific instances of them:

The decision will require a lot of thought. (uncountable: process of thinking)

What are your thoughts on Max’s suggestion? (countable: specific ideas)

We are worried about the spread of disease. (uncountable: illness in general)

These diseases are spread by poor hygiene. (countable: specific illnesses)

For some words, countability is an indicator of a completely different meaning:

This dictionary has simplified definitions. (countable: explanations of a word)

The definition on these photos is very good. (uncountable: how clear the picture is)

For other words, countability can indicate a different but related meaning:

She was wearing a long dress. (countable: item of clothing)

Formal dress is expected at the event. (uncountable: style of clothing)

They bought some land near their home. (uncountable: area)

We travelled to a faraway land. (countable: a country – rather literary use)

On a more advanced note, we sometimes see differences in countability in specialised contexts. For example, the word ‘behaviour’ is typically uncountable, but it may be used as a countable noun in contexts such as psychology:

Their behaviour is usually good. (uncountable: general use)

These children often exhibit disturbing behaviours. (countable: technical use)

And finally, another rather advanced point: pretty much any classically uncountable noun (which will be marked U only in a dictionary) can be made countable if you add an adjective before it. This use usually sounds rather literary:

An uneasy calm descended on the room.

We were tormented by a gnawing hunger.

20 thoughts on “I love coffee/Would you like a coffee? Words that can be countable and uncountable

  1. Pedro

    Liz,

    Please allow me to say that your explanations, as well as your style of communication, are always quite clear and clarifying.

    Thanks for sharing so important elements of communication with non-native speakers of English.

    .

  2. Vera Aparecida de Souza Polisciuc

    Hello!
    Thanks for this Article! It helped me in my English class about this !
    Congratulations
    Vera Aparecida

  3. Nikita

    Totally helpful! It would be so nice if you could expand this topic with many more examples probalby in one of the future articles, because English language learners tend to not grasp this topic well, randomly transforming nouns into countable/uncountable ones.

  4. Patricia Balsdon

    UP. Often said ‘Tidy your room/you had better tidy up before mom sees this mess. She went to plant her vegetables/ she went to plant up her vegetable garden. and others. Why have we added the ‘up’?

  5. Okpe Anthony Chulwudi

    It’s quite interesting that English nouns are such malleable. This and many other things like it has made me to love English the more!

    Thank you for this interesting study. Looking forward to reading more of this from you.

    1. Liz Walter

      ‘implication’ has several meanings, and the countability depends on the meaning – see the main dictionary on this site for more information.

  6. I absolutely adore your blog posts! They’re so inspirational! I love what you do, and the things you post is exactly the kind of things I’m interested in.

  7. Jack McMillan

    Interesting – I never imagined English grammar would have a connection to the mathematical field of topology. In topology, a set can be both open and closed and we deal with both countable and uncountable sets. Who Knew?

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