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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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Comments

Hello learning,

Sentence 2 is generally considered the correct one, for the reason you state. But, as you note, sometimes you can see or hear sentences like 1, even when the meaning is that each person is only wearing one shirt and tie. I would encourage you to use the second version.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Kirk,

I'd like to ask why do we use "lies" instead of "lie" although we have two nouns (Independence and Sovereignty) in the sentence below:

"Psychological Defence posits that the assurance of independence and sovereignty for Singapore lies in the spirit of Singaporeans."

Thanks!

Hi YH,

The subject of 'lies' is 'assurance', which is the head of the noun phrase 'the assurance of independence and sovereignty for Singapore'. Since 'assurance' is grammatically singular, so is the verb.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello,

Is there a difference between 'order' and 'orders?'

He will not work except order / orders.

Which word to use?

Regards.

Hi amol,

I'm afraid that sentence is not correct in standard British English with either 'order' or 'orders'. Perhaps you mean something like 'He will not work except under orders' or 'He will not work unless he is ordered to'?

'order' can be a noun as well as a verb. In my first sentence, it is a noun and in my second sentence it is a passive verb. I'd suggest you check the dictionary for more examples of how it is used.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

hi,teacher ,i have a question about that "it was a difficult marriage ",why we need to add "a" ?

Hi jiaojiaopeter,

We have a choice here of the indefinite article (a difficult marriage), the definite article (the difficult marriage) or the zero article (marriage).

 

We use the zero article when we are talking in general terms about marriage as a concept:

Marriage is an important institution

Marriage exists in virtually every culture

Note there is no adjective here (such as difficult) because the meaning is general and abstract.

 

We use the indefinite article when we are talking about one marriage, but are not identifying a particular marriage. In other words a marriage means one marriage - it's not important which one:

A successful marriage requires a lot of patience and understanding.

We celebrate a marriage every hour on Saturdays. It's the most popular day!

In your example, the phrase a difficult marriage tells us that there are many difficult marriages and we are talking about one example.

 

We use the definite article when we are referring to a particular example and both the speaker and the listener know which one it is.

Remember the marriage we were talking about last night?

Bob and Sue got married in 1996. The marriage lasted less than three years.

 

You can read more about articles in this section (use the links on the right to go to particular pages) and on this page and this page.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Peter M,
Thank you very much you explain difference between a difficult marriage and simple marriage careful and understandable. Now I know how to use nouns with two meanings.
Kind regards,
Diana

Hi just a question on scissors. If I would like to have one scissors, should I say can I have some scissors?

Hi blessnick,

Yes, 'scissors' is always grammatically plural, even when we refer to just one of them. If you want to ask someone to pass you some, you could say 'Can I have some scissors?' or 'Can I have a pair of scissors?' or 'Can you pass the scissors?'

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

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