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

MultipleChoice_MTYwODg

 

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Hi hrnmo,

All of those sentences are correct. Words like 'team' and 'family' are collective nouns which can be plural or singular. This is because we can think of a family, for example, as either one thing (a unit) or as a collection of individuals (a group).

There are quite a few words like this, such as police, government, army, Manchester United and orchestra.

There is more information on this point on the page, under point 5 (Group Nouns).

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

hi, can you please explain this. Below is the explanation of how plural nouns are used. then why this sentence is incorrect "I need to buy a new trousers." 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.

Hi navira,

'Trousers' is a plural noun and so we cannot say 'a trousers'. You can say either of the following:

I need to buy some new trousers.

I need to buy a new pair of trousers.

In the first sentence, 'trousers' is plural. In the second 'pair' is a singular noun, just as 'group', 'collection', 'set' and so on are singular. These are called 'collective nouns'.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Faizan Sahgal 提交于 周日, 10/09/2017 - 17:35

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Kindly Sir, These two questions baffles me. And i got them wrong. How can a scissors be "some scissors"? How can "run a business" be correct? According to what i read uncountable nouns do not go with an indefinite article A/An. Or am i misunderstanding the rule? Choose the correct sentence. It's not easy to run a business and raise a family. It's not easy to run business and raise a family. Choose the correct sentence. Can you lend me some scissors? Can you lend me a scissors?

Hello Faizan,

Even though 'scissors' refers to one object, it is a plural noun and so often is sometimes used with plural determiners (such as 'some'). You can also hear people say 'a scissors', though I'm not sure this would be considered correct by everyone. Another, more standard way of referring to them is to say 'a pair of scissors' (which is singular).

'business' is used as both a count and uncount noun. In this case, it refers to a particular company, and in this use it is a count noun.

It's great that you've asked these questions -- you will learn a lot this way!

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

JamlMakav 提交于 周二, 15/08/2017 - 20:22

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Hi, ''100 000 is much'' ''100 000 is many'' Which should I use if the meaning here is the number is big in amount? Thank you.

Kirk 提交于 周三, 16/08/2017 - 18:19

JamlMakav 回复

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Hello JamlMakav,

To be honest, I'd say '100,000 is a lot' and not either of the forms you ask about.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Andrew international 提交于 周三, 26/07/2017 - 08:48

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Dear Sir Please explain this to me. Can we say most money ? Eg. Most money was spent on recreation. Money is uncountable so can't we say much mony. Thank you Best regards Andrew international

Hello Andrew international,

The meaning of 'most money' and 'much money' is not the same. 'Much' means the same as 'a lot of', but we generally use 'much' in questions ('How much money have you got?') and negatives ('I haven't got much money') rather than affirmative sentences. It is perfectly fine to say 'It cost a lot of money'.

'Most' means 'more than the rest' or 'more than half the total', depending on the context. For example:

'The government spent some money on education and culture, but it spent most money on health.'

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

JakiGeh 提交于 周日, 09/07/2017 - 21:34

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Hi there, ''Half of the toaster work (or works)'' Is half of it still singular? Thank you.

Helli JakiGeh,

When we use 'half of + noun' the verb which follows agrees with the noun. For example:

half of the people are ['people' is plural, so the verb is plural]

half of the toaster is ['toaster' is singular, so the verb is singular]

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Raghad hm 提交于 周四, 06/07/2017 - 09:49

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Hi, I'd like to know which one of the following sentences is correct and why? - He showed good command of English language. Or - He showed (a) good command of English language. - He managed to achieve good enhancement in various language skills. Or - He managed to achieve (a) good enhancement in various language skills.

Kirk 提交于 周四, 06/07/2017 - 13:48

Raghad hm 回复

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Hello Raghad hm,

When we use 'command' with this meaning, normally it has a determiner like 'a' or 'her' in front of it, so the second sentence is the correct one here.

As for the other two, I'd say the second one is better. It is grammatically correct, though it sounds a bit odd to me. Most native speakers would probably phrase this idea as 'He managed to improve his language skills' or something similar.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Adya's 提交于 周二, 06/06/2017 - 04:17

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Hi "Some nouns have both a count and an uncount form", as mentioned in point no. 2 above. How to decide whether it's to be used as a count or an uncount in a particular context?

Peter M. 提交于 周二, 06/06/2017 - 06:50

Adya's 回复

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Hi Adya's,

There is no rule which lets you know this in advance; you simply have to learn it as you learn the words. Sometimes there is a logical reason, of course. For example, 'coffee' is an uncount noun when describing the substance we use but a count noun when we are talking about cups of coffee.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

kelly s. 提交于 周一, 05/06/2017 - 14:17

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Hello! I would like to ask about the word "dollars", whether it's ok for it to be followed by either singular or plural verb. Eg. Ten thousand dollars is/are needed to make this investement. Twenty dollars a day is/are a very low salary. Thank you! Kelly

Hello Kelly,

In general, plurals nouns will take plural verbs, as in the first sentence, where 'are' is correct. In the second sentence, however, 'is' is correct. This is because you're talking about a salary, so the idea of the $20 (as a salary) is singular.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

naghmairam 提交于 周五, 26/05/2017 - 08:08

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Hi, What verb should be used with plural nouns like 'Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games. For example, 'The Olympic Games is/are going to start next month'. Thanks

Kirk 提交于 周五, 26/05/2017 - 10:08

naghmairam 回复

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Hello naghmairam,

A plural verb is used for the Olympic Games, the Commonwealth Games and any others with the word 'games' in the title.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

zjboss 提交于 周一, 15/05/2017 - 20:47

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Hi, I have read this sentence, the United Oil Company are putting prices up by 12%. In the guidelines said that when we consider these nouns plural in spoken English. My question would be, what about written English?

Peter M. 提交于 周二, 16/05/2017 - 07:11

zjboss 回复

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Hi zjboss,

I would say that plural is the most common in both spoken and written English.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

MCWSL 提交于 周六, 13/05/2017 - 13:40

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Hello, http://dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/about-nouns/nouns-countable-and-uncountable At the bottom of this page, there's a chart of the abstract noun usage. The chart has this sentence ''we had a great time in Ibiza...'' and under (a specific period of time). Why isn't ''the'' used there if it has (a specific period of time) under? I still see the sentence with the article ''a'' as ''there are many great times and we had one of them which isn't particular'', in other words, I think a listener doesn't know what ''time''. It is the same with the sentence above ''the job requires a knowledge of statistics and basic computing''. Shouldn't the article ''the'' be used instead there? Thank you very much

Hello MCWSL,

I'm sorry but we really can't provide explanations of how and why language is used the way it is on other sites. We have enough to do explaining the examples on our own pages (which we are happy to do) but can't offer an explanatory service for any and all examples on the internet! If you have a question about an example on the Cambridge Dictionary site then I suggest you contact them.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Andrew international 提交于 周二, 18/04/2017 - 17:51

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Dear Sir Re: passive voice or not Tea is grown in Sri Lanka. Tea is exported. The structure of these two sentences seems to be pasive Please let me know whether they are passive or not. Thank you. Regards Andrew international

Hello Andrew international,

Yes, both of those sentences are passive.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Andrew international 提交于 周二, 18/04/2017 - 14:24

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Dear Sir Ref. on Sunday Thank you very much for explaning the above mentioned phrase It was not very clear for me before. Regards Andrew international 18.04.17

Andrew international 提交于 周一, 17/04/2017 - 16:09

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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

MCWSL 提交于 周三, 22/03/2017 - 18:44

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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

MCWSL 提交于 周一, 20/03/2017 - 15:32

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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

Widescreen 提交于 周六, 18/03/2017 - 23:11

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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

MCWSL 提交于 周二, 14/03/2017 - 16:46

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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

Asgharkhan8 提交于 周日, 05/02/2017 - 13:35

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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,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Oleg27 提交于 周日, 29/01/2017 - 19:43

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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.

Hello Oleg27,

Sometimes the article is used or not used as part of a fixed expression and other times it is used on the basis of its meaning.

In your examples it is useful to think about how the meaning changes when different articles are used:

a change of an address  - this would suggest you have multiple addresses and change one

a change of the address - this would be used only when the address has already been mentioned and you are referring back to this

Without the article the meaning is more general and is about the concept of changing address. However, the phrase is also a fixed expression. You can see this when you consider how the plural is formed: not changes of addresses but changes of address.

The same applies to all three examples: they are general in meaning, describing the concepts of 'government', 'student' and 'teacher' rather than particular examples of these.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Afia shakir khan 提交于 周日, 15/01/2017 - 11:04

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hello sir, i have doubt on these sentences. please correct me 1. i have two pairs of shoes. or I have two pair of shoes. 2. i have 3 years experience. or I have 3 three year experience. 3. i buy 2 liters of milk. or i buy 2 liter of milk. because i have 5 rupee note. (it's correct) so in this way what about the above.......

Hello Afia shakir khan,

'two pairs of shoes', 'three years of experience', and 'two litres of milk' are the correct forms in these sentences because in all of them you are talking about more than one - there are two pairs, three years and two litres.

The reason we say 'a five rupee note' is that there is only one note. The note is worth five rupees, and you could even say 'I have five rupees', but if you mention the note, then it's a five-rupee note. The same could also be true of your sentence about the milk: if the milk came in a two-litre container, you could say you bought 'a two-litre of milk'.

I hope that clears it up for you.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

mrswgivememyna… 提交于 周二, 03/01/2017 - 12:48

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Ok but is it ten lords a leaping ten lords aleaping ten lords-a-leaping tin lards be lappin

oleglesechko 提交于 周一, 02/01/2017 - 19:23

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Dear Sir, Could you kindly comment on the usage of the gerund as countable nouns? I recently stumbled across the following in the British Corpus: "Or was his delay caused by the fact that he was merely fond of her, and did not actually love her? Would this be just another experience for him - a satisfying of his sexual needs, to be forgotten within a short time? The thought made her feel cold, causing her to stir restlessly" and similar " Obtaining services by deception (s.1)

Section 1 provides: (1) A person who by any deception dishonestly obtains services from another shall be guilty of an offence.

(2) It is an obtaining of services where the other is induced to confer a benefit by doing some act, or causing or permitting some act to be done, on the understanding that the benefit has been or will be paid for". 1) Would you say the use of 'an obtaining' and 'a satisfying' is correct? 2) If so, can we jump to the conclusion that all/most/some gerunds can be used as countable nouns? Festive greetings and regards, Oleg

Hello Oleg,

It is possible to use certain gerunds in this way in very formal language - literary (as in the first example) or, more often, legal language (as in the second). The gerund here is used with a sense of 'a kind of...' rather than with the normal more general meaning. I would not generalise to 'all' gerunds, though I would say that it is more a question of the style of the text than the grammatical rule.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

taj25 提交于 周三, 14/12/2016 - 09:01

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hi peter how do i know these sentence whether singular or plural. i give an example. "the children were playing happily" my question is why u using "were" instead of "was" pls clarify the sentence.

Hello taj25,

'children' is a plural noun, so plural verb ('were') is required, not a singular one ('was').

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team