Countable and Uncountable Nouns

Nouns can be classified in a number of different ways in English, but one of the most basic is the difference between countable and uncountable nouns.  While the concept makes a degree of intuitive sense to native English speakers, it can be tricky for people with English as a second language.  There are also some tricky edge cases that can fool even the most adept English speaker.  Let’s take a minute to look at the difference between the two.

Countable nouns, simply put, are things we can count using numbers.  If you can ask “how many _____ do you have?”, then you’re dealing with a countable noun.  Countable nouns have singular and plural forms, and take the word a or an when you’re talking about just one of them.

Uncountable nouns, then, are things we can’t count using numbers.  They may be an abstract idea, like love or beauty.  They could be liquids or gases, which generally we don’t count, or something like sand, which is too small to be counted in most contexts.  They usually do not have a plural form.  You wouldn’t say “I have four milks” or “I have three evidences”; you would say “I have some milk” or “I have three pieces of evidence.”  You use words like “some”, “a lot of”, “a bit of”, or exact measurements like “four pounds of” or “an hour of”.

You don’t use a or an with uncountable nouns, either.  It’s not “Chicago has a lovely weather”, just “Chicago has lovely weather”.

Some examples of countable versus uncountable nouns include:

Machine (countable) versus machinery (uncountable)
Hammer versus tool
versus transportation
versus furniture
Fact versus information
Necklace versus jewelry
versus scenery
Tip versus advice

When you’re coming from another language, it can be particularly tricky, because some words that are countable in English are uncountable in other languages, and vice versa.  In many Asian languages, like Japanese or Chinese, there aren’t really any countable nouns, and even other Western languages occasionally throw curveballs at you.  In English, fruit is often uncountable and vegetables is countable, but in German, it’s reversed (Frucht, or fruit, is countable, while Gemüse, or vegetable, is uncountable).  It’s something that can often trick up a language learning student, and it’s really something that can only be solved by memorizing the common uncountable nouns.

To make matters worse, some nouns can be either countable or uncountable, depending on the situation.  Cheese, for example—when you’re talking about the concept of cheese, it’s uncountable (I am going to eat some cheese), but when you’re talking about a specific type of cheese, it becomes countable (I have three different cheeses to eat today.)  Hair is a common one—all the hair on your head, combined, is uncountable, but your individual strands of hair are countable.  Here’s a good list of the most common words that can be both countable or uncountable, depending on context.
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