Level: beginner 

Substances as count or uncount nouns

Substances are usually uncount nouns:

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

but they can also be 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. = They had over twenty [types of] cheese.
This is an excellent soft cheese. = This [kind of] soft cheese is excellent.

Substances as count or uncount nouns 1


Substances as count or uncount nouns 2


Nouns with both a count and an uncount form

Some nouns have both a count and an uncount form. Their meanings are closely related:

George had hopes of promotion.
We should always have hope.

There's a danger of avalanches on the mountain.
Some people enjoy danger.

Level: intermediate

Nouns with two meanings

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

Can I have a glass of water?
I cut myself on some glass.


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

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

Other nouns like this are:

business industry property wood
power time work hair
Nouns with two meanings 1


Nouns with two meanings 2


Uncount nouns that end in –s

Some uncount nouns end in –s. They look like plural count nouns, but they are not.

Nouns like this 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.

Uncount nouns that end in –s




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,


The LearnEnglish Team


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,


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,


The LearnEnglish Team

Could anyone correct my sentence.
They are philosophers whose thinking match to the today's idealist school of thought.

Hello Asgharkhan8,

For one thing, since 'thinking' is grammatically singular, the verb 'match' should be singular ('matches'). Also, the word 'to' isn't needed; neither is 'the': '... whose thinking match today's idealist ....'

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

But I have linked 'match' with the philosophers. How do I get to know which one is the subject? Here we are discussing about 'philosophers' rather than 'thinking'.

Hello Asgharkhan8,

You're correct in saying that the 'thinking' is done by the philosophers, but 'thinking' is the subject in the second clause '(their) thinking matches today's idealist school of thought'. If we divided that one sentence into two, it would be something like: 'They are the philosophers. The philosophers' thinking matches today's idealist school of thought.' As you can see, the subject of the verb 'matches' is 'thinking'.

Does that make sense?

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello. I am a non-native speaker of English, so I'm asking for your help. Why do we use the zero article in the following phrases (I have found them in dictionaries):
a change of address
a change of government
a switch from student to teacher
Are the words after the prepositions countable nouns?
Could you provide me with some more examples of this usage of normally countable nouns.
I would be very greatful for your explanation, because I cannot understand it by myself thus far.