The Uncountable Noun
One of the most common problems we see, especially with ESL writers, is with countable and uncountable nouns. It’s a concept that doesn’t exist in some languages, so switching over to English, some people can have trouble. Chinese and Japanese don’t have articles, so sentences like “Sun is hot” make sense, despite being grammatically incorrect in English.
Even more annoyingly, some words are countable in some languages, but not in others–furniture, for example, is countable in Spanish, but not in English. Learning to determine when a noun is countable or not is mostly a matter of memorization, sadly.
A countable noun has a singular and a plural form–that is, a countable noun can be used with a number. You have one friend, two friends, three friends, many friends. Uncountable nouns, however, do not have such forms–you can only use them in the singular form. You have “a lot of money,” not “100 money” or “1000 money.” You can have “100 dollars.” But not “100 money.”
Even more confusingly, some nouns can be either countable or not countable, depending on context. Take “chocolate”, for example. “I love chocolate” means you love all chocolate, no matter the form–and that means you are going to use the word “chocolate” as an uncountable noun. “Give me a chocolate,” however, means give me one piece of chocolate–the word “chocolate” becomes countable because Im not asking you to give me every piece of chocolate in existence–just a countable number of pieces.
Here’s a quick practice exercise. Can you tell which bolded nouns are countable, and which are uncountable? Quick tip–try placing a number before the word in question, and see if it makes sense. If not, its probably uncountable.
- The children are playing video games.
- I don’t like milk.
- I prefer soda.
- Scientists claim that the environment is getting warmer.
- I use way too much butter on my toast.
- If we use some glue to repair the vase, maybe no one will know we broke it.
- There are too many windows here–its too bright.
- I think that the waiters in this restaurant are intentionally ignoring me.
- If I don’t have two glasses of coffee a day, I get jittery.
- Drivers have to be careful today–with that storm, accidents are likely to happen.
1, 4, 7, 8, and 9 are all countable, while the rest are not.
photo credit: Ervins Strauhmanis via photopin cc