Common problems with count and uncount nouns

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

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Substances as count or uncount nouns 2

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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

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Nouns with two meanings 2

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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

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Submitted by Kirk on Sat, 06/08/2016 - 12:21

In reply to by Andrew international

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Hello again Andrew international,

Numbers, which are used to count, are not used with uncount nouns, so 'one equipment' is not correct. Instead, you could say 'one piece of equipment', for example. Your other questions would probably (I can't say for sure without knowing the context) best be constructed as 'How much of the equipment is serviceable/defective?' - what is certain is that you shouldn't use 'how many' because 'how many' is used only with count nouns.

Hope this helps.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team 

Submitted by Andrew international on Fri, 05/08/2016 - 18:45

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Dear Sir 'equipment' is an uncount noun. Is allright to say:1. 'The equipment is defective.' 2. Some equipment are defective or is defective. Going through the BRITISH COUNCIL website: one can use 'some' to say more than one but the verb remains singular. eg. There is some milk on the floor. so my sentence 2. is wrong. I shouldn't use 'are' and I cannot use 'the' I must say 'equipment is defective ' eg. 1. Please let me know . Regards

Submitted by Kirk on Sat, 06/08/2016 - 09:26

In reply to by Andrew international

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Hello Andrew international,

Uncount nouns take a singular verb, so 'the equipment are defective' is not correct - you should use the singular verb 'is'. 'milk' is also an uncount noun in the sentence you mentioned and that is why the verb 'is' is correct in that sentence.

'some' can be used with both count and uncount nouns and so can 'the'. I'd recommend you follow the links I provided to read more about each.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Namdwit on Tue, 02/08/2016 - 08:57

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Dear Sir, I'm a little bit confuse about a word ' travel' in the previous section travel is uncount noun - usually refer to activity, but in this section the word has both a count and uncount noun From the example above there is travel with s (travels) Does it mean plural? How we differentiate the count and uncount of ths word? Thank you

Hello Namdwit,

'Travel' as an abstract concept is uncountable. For example:

Travel is a great way to learn about other cultures.

When we want to talk about a particular person's journeys, however, we can use a countable form. In this sense it means the same as 'journeys' but it is not used to talk about concrete trips. In other words we can say:

In all his travels, he was never a victim of violence.

However we would not say:

I have six travels this week.

We would use 'trips' here.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by neh7272 on Tue, 29/03/2016 - 14:09

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sir, Does the following sentences mean the same - George had hopes of promotion. George had hoped of promotion.

Submitted by Kirk on Wed, 30/03/2016 - 07:38

In reply to by neh7272

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Hello neh7272,

'hope' isn't usually followed by 'of', but rather 'for': 'had hopes for' or 'had hoped for'. Those two are quite differently grammatically, but basically mean the same thing.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Venus Marina on Sun, 28/02/2016 - 17:20

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Hi, Can you please explain to me the difference between "people" and "peoples"? And in what cases can we use the latter one?

Submitted by Kirk on Mon, 29/02/2016 - 07:01

In reply to by Venus Marina

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Hello Venus,

One of the uses of 'people' is to refer to 'all the men, women, and ​children who ​live in a ​particular ​country, or who have the same ​culture or ​language' (I copied this directly from the dictionary) and it is in this case that it can be singular or plural. Otherwise, 'people' is always plural.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by ricbarol on Thu, 18/02/2016 - 02:26

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They sell a lot of coffees = so this is wrong right? They sell a lot of different kinds of coffee = and this one is correct?

Hello ricbarol,

In general, yes, the second sentence is preferable and what I'd recommend you use, though I expect you might be able to hear some speakers use the first form as well to mean the same thing.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Andrew international on Thu, 04/02/2016 - 16:55

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Dear Sir Would you explain this to me please? There are five kinds of phrase. Is it wrong to say five kinds of phrases?

Submitted by Kirk on Sat, 06/02/2016 - 08:13

In reply to by Andrew international

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Hello andrew international,

There may be some editors who prefer one way over the other, in general, both ways of saying it are considered correct.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by MayelaM on Thu, 17/09/2015 - 21:34

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Does the word "people" requires to be always followed by a plural verb? or can it be used sporadically with a singular verb? For example "People is defined using adjectives as intelligent, ......" Thanks

Hello Mayela,

Other than when talking about 'people' as a word, e.g. ''people' is a noun' or in the sentence you cite, I can't think of any instance in which 'people' is treated as singular in English. As I'm sure you've noticed, it's different from Spanish, and it's a difficult thing to remember – many of my students here make this error frequently. It's not a serious error, but using it correctly will definitely make your English sound better, at least to most native speakers.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by radovan1972 on Tue, 15/09/2015 - 17:26

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Dear BC team, as for the two-part nouns. We cannot count them. We cannot say 2 sunglasses/jeans/pyjamas/shorts etc. However, we can count them with "pairs of", we can say 2/5/20 pairs of sunglasses/jeans/pyjamas/shorts/scissors. What about quantifiers? Is it grammatically correct to say many/a lot of/plenty of sunglasses/jeans/pyjamas/shorts/scissors? Or do I have to say many/a lot of/plenty of pairs of sunglasses/jeans/pyjamas/shorts/scissors? Thank you very much for your answer. Radovan P.S. You are doing a great job here.

Hello Radovan,

Strictly speaking, you should probably say the latter ('plenty of pairs of jeans'), but I've certainly used the other forms myself, as well as heard plenty of other people use them.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by ASdfghjklove on Mon, 27/07/2015 - 00:43

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Why do we say "many tiny" instead of "too little" or "too small" ? For example; "many tiny strands"

Hello ASdfghjklove,

'Many tiny strands' has a different meaning. It means 'a lot of small strands'. 'Too little' or 'too small' have different meanings.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by urekharao on Tue, 14/07/2015 - 05:26

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Please clarify the sentences below: 1. Is it right to say "This scissors is blunt"? Or do we say "These scissors or this pair of scissors is blunt"? 2. Also, do we say "The government are in crisis?" OR "The government is in crisis?" Thanks in advance.

Hello urekharao,

'Scissors' is a plural noun and so both the verb and the determiner should be plural in your sentence. You can say either of the following:

These scissors are blunt.

This pair of scissors is blunt.

'The government' can be singular or plural - both are correct. If we are thinking of 'the government' as a collection of individuals then we use a plural form; if we are thinking of the institution then we use a singular form. It is entirely up to the speaker.

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by manojparmar on Thu, 02/07/2015 - 13:39

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Hi Team, I need to understand that, from the following, which ones have correct form of noun(Singular/Plural): 1. These buildings are made of bricks and stones. Or, These buildings are mde of brick and stone. 2. She had gone to buy fruits. Or, She had gone to buy fruit. Also, I would request you suggest that whether we have list of Singular/Plural nous on this site. Thanks in advance.. Manoj

Submitted by Kirk on Thu, 02/07/2015 - 20:09

In reply to by manojparmar

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Hello Manoj,

You can use the dictionary to look up singular and plural forms of nouns – see the searchbox under Cambridge Dictionaries Online on the lower right side of this and most pages. All four sentences are correct but mean slightly different things. 1a is used to refer to the quantity of bricks and stones and 1b refers more to the material the buildings are made of. It's a subtle difference. 2a means that she's going to buy different kinds of fruit and 2b is less specific – it could be all one kind of fruit or different kinds. I'd suggest you look up 'fruit' in the dictionary to see what I mean. [C] means it's a count noun and [UC] means it's an uncount noun.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by andeo on Sun, 05/04/2015 - 22:11

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Hello dear BC team, this is definitely the most difficult exercise for me up to now. So, I have a few questions. I have to say that I searched a lot on the topic of countable and uncountable nouns over internet, and I find out more there, also. Unfortunately, there are some things make me confused. First, in the second part of this section you explain "HOPE" and "TRAVEL". When I saw this in dictionary I did not notice if there article "A" or "AN" in front of noun when it is countable. Does it mean that if they are singular then we use them us uncountable. And please could you give me some more examples of these words? It would be easier, and then I would check them in dictionary. Second, in section 5 (group nouns) Group nouns have an article when they are singular (a group, a committee..). We use it like every another count noun. But words "stuff" or "public" does not have undefinite articles. Right? We cannot say "a public", but just "public" or "the public". Am I right about following questions: 1.A government is unpopular. (we talk about government in general, for example if you were a member of some government that would be rude because governments are unpopular) 2. The government is unpopular. (we talk about one government, for ecample the government of India) 3. (The) governments are unpopular. ( we talk about several governments, for example the government of India, Peru and the U.S. which are unpopular this moment) Thank you in advance. It is interesting be here on your website. Every new day I learn something which help me a lot!

Hello swxswx,

You're right in thinking that seeing examples of some words is useful in understanding how they work. To see examples of any word in use, you can do an internet search for the word inside inverted commas (e.g. "hope", "travels") and you'll see lots of examples. Another useful tool for this same kind of research is a corpus - see for example, the British National Corpus. Simply enter the word you want to see in context in the box in the top left, and then click on the result on the right and you'll see lots of examples.

As for your questions regarding group nouns and the last three about the use of articles with 'government', you are correct.

Keep up the good work!

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Ilariuccia on Sun, 29/03/2015 - 13:33

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Hi again... I've got another question...Is there any difference in use between the uncount noun jewellery and the plural jewels? Thanks, Ilariuccia

Hello Ilariuccia,

If you look at the definitions carefully in the dictionary, you will see there can be a difference here, as 'jewellery' can refer to more than precious stones, whereas 'jewels' really refers only to precious stones.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Ilariuccia on Sun, 29/03/2015 - 08:49

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Hi everyone! I've always found 'an English teacher,a Maths teacher....' using the construction noun+noun...Is the expression 'a teacher of English' likewise correct or the meaning changes? Thanks in advance.. Kind regards, Ilariuccia

Hello Ilariuccia,

English has quite a few compound nouns (noun + noun) combinations like 'English teacher' (e.g. chocolate milk, horse race, sunglasses). Forms such as the one you propose are not grammatically incorrect, but sound unnatural enough that I'd recommend you avoid using them.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Raspati on Fri, 20/02/2015 - 13:59

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Hello there, I'd like to ask you a quesition. when it comes to abstract noun. How can we decide whether the word is countable or uncountable noun ? for example, She has too much pride to admit her mistake. I will put a lot of effort to win that challange. Thank you Best regards, :)

Hello Raspati,

Abstract nouns are often uncountable when used in an abstract sense. For example, 'time' is uncountable when used to refer to the concept of time, but if we use the word in a non-abstract sense, to mean 'a period of time', then it becomes countable. For example:

Time passes more slowly as you get older.

I had a great time at the party.

Beyond that general rule of thumb, I'm afraid it's just necessary to learn how each word is used.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by PRASURAL on Wed, 04/02/2015 - 04:53

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the government in Sri Lanka is a democratic republic. non of the government in South Asia is liberal. are above sentences grammaticaly correct?

Hello PRASURAL,

We would be more likely to phrase the sentences as follows:

Sri Lanka is a democratic republic.

None of the governments of South Asia are liberal.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

*the government are always changing their minds *none of the governments of South Asia are liberal what is the reason not to add "s" to the word of 'government' in the above example which is included in the lesson?

Hello Prasural,

In British English, when a noun refers to a group of people, which includes nouns such as 'government', 'team', 'family', etc., the verb is usually used in the plural form. That is why this sentence says 'government are ...' If you changed it to 'governments are ...' that would be grammatically correct, but the meaning would be different.

I hope this helps.

Best regards,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Joong Myn on Sat, 24/01/2015 - 10:55

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Hi there, Could you explain to me the two following sentence? -How can you expect your children to be truthful when "you yourself" tell lie? -"People all" like to attend the meeting and why can't I use like the two in this sentence: - "All animals have to eat in order to live" Why not: Animals all have to eat... Thank a lot

Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 25/01/2015 - 10:47

In reply to by Joong Myn

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Hi Joong Myn,

The phrase 'you yourself' is a more emphatic form of 'you' in this context. You can this sentence in various ways:

How can you expect your children to be truthful when you yourself tell lies?

How can you expect your children to be truthful when you tell lies?

How can you expect your children to be truthful when you tell lies yourself?

It is possible to say 'People all...' or 'All people' with little difference in meaning. Although 'All animals...' is the more common way to phrase your last sentence, 'Animals all...' is also correct.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

I see, thanks Besides, you say that it's possible to say 'People all...' or 'All people' , however, with little difference in meaning, and it's also exactly what I do want to know. Could you explain more? Thanks a lot

Submitted by iamsam1987 on Tue, 23/12/2014 - 06:37

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Dear Sir, I have come across the following sentences on your site- 1. We’ve got three pairs of scissors, but they are all blunt. 2. I always carry two pairs of binoculars. I have read a certain rule on UNITS OF COUNTING. It says if units of counting such as pair, dozen, score, gross, hundred, thousand etc. are preceded by a definite number, then units of counting must be used in the singular. But in the above mentioned sentences, it does not follow this particular rule. Could you please explain why ? Thank you so much British Council Team

Submitted by Peter M. on Wed, 24/12/2014 - 08:20

In reply to by iamsam1987

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Hello iamsam1987,

I'm afraid that rule is not true of all units of counting. While it is true of the words you quote, it is not usually true of 'pair'; this is used in a plural form. Many such 'rules' are really just tendencies, examples of use which are formed through typical use rather than a fixed rule.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by iamsam1987 on Tue, 16/12/2014 - 11:22

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Dear Sir, It is said that units of counting (e.g. dozen, gross, score etc.) should always be used in singular forms when preceded by numerals. Two dozen (correct) Two dozens (incorrect) 1) My first question to you is why we say "He is seven years old." "Year" is also a unit of counting. Isn't it ? Then why use "years" instead of "year". 2) My second question to you is what is the difference between these two usage(s) "fourteen-year-old-boys" and "fourteen years old"

Submitted by Peter M. on Wed, 17/12/2014 - 14:21

In reply to by iamsam1987

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Hello iamsam1987,

1. 'Year' is a unit of time like 'day', 'hour', 'minute' etc. These are used in plural forms.

2. One ('fourteen-year-old boys') is an adjectival form; the other is a number followed by a noun ('fourteen years').

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by iamsam1987 on Mon, 15/12/2014 - 10:59

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Dear Sir, Could you please tell me the difference between these two pairs of sentences? Pair One- 1. Great pains have been taken. 2. Much pains has been taken. Pair two - 1. All possible means have been tried. 2. The means employed by you is sufficient. Although plural forms (pains and means) have been used but the verbs differ. How can we sense whether singular or plural forms of verbs is to be used ? Thank you so much.

Hello iamsam1987,

In each pair, sentence 1 is correct but sentence 1.2 is not. In 1.2, 'pains' is plural, and so needs a plural quantifier ('many' instead of 'much') as well as a plural verb.

2.2 is correct, as 'means' is singular, though it sounds a bit strange. This is because 'means' isn't usually used in this kind of construction. If you look it up in our Cambridge Dictionaries Online search box on the right, you'll see examples of how it is typically used.

Best regards,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Saltaon on Mon, 01/12/2014 - 19:37

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Hi, "Most of research (focuse or focuses) on the cycle known as rapid eye movement." the answer is (focuses) right? Many thanks for your direction.

Submitted by Peter M. on Tue, 02/12/2014 - 09:25

In reply to by Saltaon

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Hello Saltaon,

'Research' is an uncountable noun and so the correct verb is 'focuses' - the third-person singular form. As an aside, it should also be 'most research' rather than 'most of research'.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by zagrus on Wed, 26/11/2014 - 16:06

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Hi, Should we say" three days is left" or " three days are left" Thanks in advance

Submitted by Kirk on Thu, 27/11/2014 - 07:32

In reply to by zagrus

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Hi zagrus,

'three days are left' is the correct form - it's a simple copula, i.e. subject + verb + adjective.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by cylim2bru on Sun, 02/11/2014 - 14:08

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Countable and uncountable nouns has been very confusing to non-English speaker like me. It is more of convention than physical countability .

Submitted by keanit on Tue, 27/05/2014 - 09:04

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How can clarity the words that have two meaning? How can I know that is uncountable or countable nouns?