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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

Dear Sir
Please explain this to me.
The shop is closed on Sunday. If this sentence is correct 'on Sunday' means every Sunday
I am I correct? Is it also correct to say' The shop is closed 'on Sundays.'
Please let me know.
Regards
Andrew international

Hello Andrew international,

The phrase 'on Sunday' can refer to one particular day or to a general state (every Sunday). It is not clear from the sentence alone which is being referred to but may be from the context.

If we say 'on Sundays' then we are decribing a general fact (every Sunday).

If we want to be clear that we are talking about only one (exceptional) Sunday then we would say 'this Sunday', 'next Sunday', 'last Sunday' or similar.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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

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