1: Uncount nouns used as count nouns

Although substances are usually uncount nouns...

Would you like some cheese?
Coffee keeps me awake at night.
Wine makes me sleep.

... they can be also used as count nouns:

 

I’d like a coffee please.  = I’d like a [cup of] coffee.
May I have a white wine.  = May I have a [glass of] white wine.
They sell a lot of coffees.  = They sell a lot of [different kinds of] coffee.
I prefer white wines to red.  = I prefer [different kinds of] white wine to red.
They had over twenty cheeses on sale.  = They had over twenty [types of] cheese on sale.
This is an excellent soft cheese.  = This [kind of] soft cheese is excellent.

 2: Some nouns have both a count and an uncount form:

We should always have hope.
George had hopes of promotion.
Travel is a great teacher.
Where did you go on your travels?

 

3: Nouns with two meanings

Some nouns have two meanings, one count and the other non count:

His life was in danger.
There is a serious danger of fire.

Linguistics is the study of language.
Is English a difficult language?

It’s made of paper.
The Times is an excellent paper.

Other words like this are:

 

business death  industry marriage power property
tax time victory use work  

 4: Uncount nouns that end in -s

Some uncount nouns end in -s so they look like plurals even though they are singular nouns.

These nouns generally refer to:

Subjects of study: mathematics, physics, economics, etc.
Activities: gymnastics, athletics, etc. 
Games: cards, darts, billiards, etc.
Diseases: mumps, measles, rabies, etc.


Economics is a very difficult subject.
Billiards is easier than pool or snooker.
 

5: Group nouns

Some nouns, like army, refer to groups of people, animals or things, and we can use them either as singular nouns or as plural nouns.

army audience committee company crew enemy
family flock gang government group herd
media public regiment staff team  

We can use these group nouns either as singular nouns or as plural nouns:

  • My family is very dear to me.
    I have a large family. They are very dear to me. (= The members of my family…)
  • The government is very unpopular.
    The government are always changing their minds.

Sometimes we think of the group as a single thing:

  • The audience always enjoys the show.
  • The group consists of two men and three women.

Sometimes we think of the group as several individuals;

  • The audience clapped their hands.
  • The largest group are the boys.


The names of many organisations and teams are also group nouns, but they are usually plural in spoken English:

  • Barcelona are winning 2-0.
  • The United Oil Company are putting prices up by 12%.
     

6: Two-part nouns

A few plural nouns, like binoculars, refer to things that have two parts.

glasses jeans knickers pincers pants pliers
pyjamas scissors shorts spectacles tights trainers
trousers tweezers        

These binoculars were very expensive
Those trousers are too long.

To make it clear we are talking about one of these items, we use a pair of …

I need a new pair of spectacles.
I’ve bought a pair of blue jeans.

If we want to talk about more than one, we use pairs of … :

We’ve got three pairs of scissors, but they are all blunt.
I always carry two pairs of binoculars.
 

Exercise

Section: 

Comments

Hello,

''They ate all the stewed apple/apples''

What is the difference between each sentence when the noun is changed?

Thank you.

Hello MCWSL,

'stewed apple' is an uncount noun phrase and 'stewed apples' is a count noun phrase. In the first, the food is viewed more as a unit and in the second it is viewed as something with parts. Other than that, out of context I can't think of any other difference -- it's quite a subtle one.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello,

''John's been in prison for ten years''

The noun is uncountable in the sentence, which says that John in general has done time. The prison is non-specific and uncountable. If I change it to ''a prison,'' it'll mean John's been just in one prison that is non-specific too. In other words, the difference between the two is that the first sentence more shows the state and doesn't give any information of the prison or prisons he has been in(it could mean he has been in more than one prison). But the second gives the quantity of prisons, which is one.

Correct me if I'm wrong.

''The problems of British prisons''

What would the difference be if I changed prisons to prison(uncountable) here?

Thanks

Hello MCWSL,

There is a particular use of articles here. When we are describing a public institution which is being used for its original purpose we do not use an article. For example:

He went to hospital [he's a patient]

He went to a hospital [he is visiting for some reason; we do not know or do not care which hospital it is]

He went to the hospital [he is visiting for some reason; both the speaker and the listener know which hospital it is]

The same pattern can be seen with a number of other institutions: school, university, college, prison, court, and church.

I'm in church [I'm praying/participating in a service]

I'm in a church [I'm visiting, perhaps as a tourist]

I'm in the church [I'm visiting a specific known church]

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi ,

I've got this sentence: We saw a rapid rise in life expectancy due to improvement in medicine".

My question is : with regard to the word " expectancy" , does it have the same meaning in this context as the word " expectation" or " life span "? I understand that life expectancy is how long we expect someone to live and life span also means the maximum time someone live. But what about expectation? Does expectation also means our expectation of life time of a person?

thank you

Hi Widescreen,

The phrase 'life expectancy' means, as you say, how long we expect a person or a group of people to live. It is a fixed expression; we would not use 'expectation' here. There is also a slight difference in meaning. 'Expectancy' here refers to objective prediction based on some form of data (statistics, medical prognosis etc). 'Expectation' is simply what a given person expects and it may be based on no more than a guess.

'Life span' refers to the length of a life. You could say 'expected life span', for example, which would have a similar meaning to 'life expectancy'.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello,

I don't understand how to use nouns that can be uncountable and countable. What does it depend on? I know that a variable noun is like countable when it refers to an instance or an individual member of a class. Otherwise it behaves like uncountable and have two examples:

''the most frightening endeavor was coming to the different country after graduating, which had such an effect on me that I became''

In my opinion, ''an'' should be used because the effect refers to particular moment.

''At the age of 15, I did not have a special interest in curricula''

And here once again, it refers to the particular interest.

Correct me if I'm wrong.

Thank you

Hello MCWSL,

The use of the indefinite article is not dependent on whether or not the noun is countable or uncountable, but on the meaning being expressed. We use the indefinite article when we are speaking about a non-specific case: one of a larger group. Where the noun is uncountable we use 'some' instead of 'a' in such cases, but the meaning remains the same.

In your first sentence the implication is that there are many effects which the experience could have, and you are describing one of them. In your second sentence we understand that there are many special interests possible (every individual could have one), and you are talking about one of them.

It can be instructive to put the definite article into the sentence to see how the meaning changes. For example:

At the age of 15, I did not have the special interest in curricula.

For this to make sense we would need to be talking about a particular special interest. For example, you might earlier describe in detail your particular, unique special interest in curricula, and then can use 'the' because you are describing a particular case which is identified individually and defined as different to all others.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you very much for the explanation, Peter.

I just have one more question. As you said, using ''a'' with a count/uncount noun we describe one of others. Doesn't that make the ''one'' particular and unique?

And I understand that the difference between ''a'' and ''the'' with a count/uncount noun is that if we use ''the,'' we have to describe that particular noun earlier and if ''a,'' we have to describe it later.

Correct me if I'm wrong.

Many thanks again.

Hello MCWSL,

When we use the indefinite article we are describing one from a group but without specifying which one. In other words the article means something like 'any one of them - it does not matter which', not 'this particular one and only this one' (which is the meaning of the definite article).

There is no obligation to describe the noun later. It can remain just a general identifier. When we use the definite article, of course, the noun must be identified.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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