Countable and Uncountable Nouns

There are two different kinds of nouns in English – countable nouns and uncountable nouns.  Knowing the difference between the two can help you out when you’re trying to write your next paper.

Countable nouns, as the name implies, are nouns that can be counted – individual things that you can separate and count individually.  You might have two dogs, or four bottles, or ten dollars.

Uncountable nouns, on the other hand, are things that are one big concept, or otherwise hard to divide.  Things like water, or advice or politics – it doesn’t make sense, in English, to say there’s “three water”, because the concept doesn’t divide like that.  We can say there are three bottles of water or three drops of water – bottles and drops are countable.   But we can’t split a noun like water, so we call it uncountable.

Uncountable nouns usually fall into a few common categories:

  • Liquids and gasses, such as water or oxygen
  • Solid or granular substances, like wood or sand
  • Energy words and forces, like sunshine or heat
  • School subjects, like French or chemistry
  • Concepts that are already groups, like fruit or news
  • Abstract concepts, like information or advice

Of course, there are exceptions – this is English, there are always exceptions.  You might hear, for example, someone asking for “three coffees” at a Starbucks.  Coffee is an uncountable noun – you can’t have three coffees.  You can have three cups of coffee, though, and that’s what they’re ordering – they’re just using “coffee” as a shorter version of “cup of coffee”.  This is technically incorrect, but it’s commonly used and people understand what you’re talking about if you use it like that.

The other major exception is some words that can be used as either a countable or an uncountable noun based on its meaning.  The word “light” is a good example.  The concept of light – the thing that makes vision possible – is an uncountable noun.  However, sources of light – like candles or Christmas lights – are countable nouns.  So both of the following are correct:

  • I couldn’t see anything because there was no light
  • Hundreds of lights lit up the path.

In cases like that, you need to check how the word is being used before knowing whether it’s countable or uncountable.

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