Number one for English language teachers

Countability and noun types - article

Type: Reference material

An article on ways to approach teaching countability and noun types.

Introduction

In English, we make a basic distinction between what are referred to as countable nouns and uncountable nouns (also sometimes called uncount or mass nouns).

Countable nouns represent people or things (both abstract and concrete) which can be counted. In the examples below, the countable nouns are shown in bold:

Sam’s eating a bar of chocolate.

Can you look after Tom for ten minutes?

Do you have any brothers or sisters?

If you pass your exams you’ll have more opportunities in the future.

Study the third example.

Countable nouns can be used in both the singular and plural form. The majority of plural forms of countable nouns end in s, e.g.

  • minute – minutes
  • brother – brothers
  • opportunity – opportunities
  • leaf – leaves

A smaller number of plural forms are irregular, e.g.

  • child – children
  • woman – women
  • mouse – mice

Some countable nouns have the same form for both singular and plural, e.g.

  • a sheep – nine sheep
  • one salmon – three salmon

Uncountable nouns generally refer to things that we don’t think of counting because they do not naturally divide into separate units. They usually represent substances or more abstract concepts such as qualities or processes, rather than individual items or events. In the examples below, the uncountable nouns are shown in bold:

The kitchen floor was covered in water.
Jack is a boy with average intelligence.
She’s only trying to think about your health and happiness.
You must try to get some sleep.

I just want to find out the truth.

Uncountable nouns have no plural form and are never used with numbers. However, we can refer to an amount of the quality or substance represented by an uncountable noun by using certain determiners or quantifying phrases, e.g.

Do you want some milk?
Have you got enough money?
There were a few drops of water on the floor.
Your son has a great deal of intelligence.

Countability and the article system

Countable nouns

All singular countable nouns can be used with the indefinite article a or an. We use the indefinite article a before singular countable nouns that begin with a consonant sound, e.g.

  • a sausage
  • a minute
  • a university

and the indefinite article an is used before singular countable nouns that begin with a vowel sound, e.g.

  • an orange
  • an example
  • an hour

Note though that the choice of a or an simply depends on the vowel or consonant sound that comes immediately after the indefinite article, compare, e.g.

an example but a good example

a sausage but an enormous sausage

Singular countable nouns can also occur with the definite article the, possessive pronouns such as my, our, etc, and demonstrative pronouns such as this/that, e.g.

the day she left

my older brother

her last exam

this correct example

They also occur with each, every and one, e.g.

I see her every day.
Write down each example.
There’s only one exam.

Like singular countable nouns, plural countable nouns also occur with the definite article the, possessive pronouns, and demonstrative pronouns such as these/those, e.g.

The exams were hard.
My brothers and sisters came.
These sausages taste good.

Unlike singular countable nouns, however, they never occur with the indefinite article, cannot occur with each, every or one, and often occur with no article at all, e.g.

* Every exams were hard.
I love sausages.
Examples can be found below.

Plural countable nouns often occur with numbers greater than one, and some and any, e.g.

She’d like two sausages.
Write some examples.
I didn’t pass any exams.

We also frequently use many and a few with plural countable nouns, e.g.

I wrote a few examples down.

She didn’t pass many exams.

Uncountable nouns

Uncountable nouns can occur with the definite article the and possessive or demonstrative pronouns, but never occur with each, every, numbers, or the indefinite article a/an, e.g.

* A milk is on the table.
The milk is on the table.
This milk tastes strange.
Use your intelligence!

Uncountable nouns frequently occur with no article at all, e.g.

I take milk in my coffee.
There’s water on the floor.

Uncountable nouns often occur with some and any, e.g.

Sprinkle the flowers with some water.
Did you buy any milk?

We also sometimes use much and a little with uncountable nouns, e.g.

I haven’t got much money.
Just a little milk please.

We can refer to an amount of the quality or substance represented by an uncountable noun by using certain quantifying phrases, e.g.

a glass of water

a degree of intelligence

Some other types of nouns

As well as the fundamental distinction between countable and uncountable nouns in English, there also exist some other types of nouns which have specific grammatical properties, as described below:

Countable/uncountable nouns

Some concrete nouns are countable when they refer to a separate, individual item, and uncountable when they refer to a substance related to that item, e.g.

The little boy was throwing stones. (countable)

The fireplace is made of stone. (uncountable)

There was a pile of newspapers on her desk. (countable)

I like eating fish and chips out of newspaper. (uncountable)

I’d like a glass of water. (countable)
The explosion had cracked the glass in the window. (uncountable)

Nouns denoting food and drink often behave in this way, e.g.

Two coffees please. (countable)

I’ve never liked the taste of coffee. (uncountable)

Could you peel some potatoes? (countable)
Serve this dish with mashed potato. (uncountable)

There are some nouns which have a countable sense describing a specific example of something, and an uncountable sense which refers to a related action or idea in general, e.g.

Sam did a lovely drawing at school today. (countable)

Sam has always been good at drawing. (uncountable)

I could hear a noise coming from the kitchen. (countable)

A disadvantage of the house is the constant noise from the road. (uncountable)

This news confirmed one of my worst fears. (countable)
Authority ought not to be based on fear. (uncountable)
That was a very interesting experience. (countable)
I knew from experience that there was no point in arguing. (uncountable)
This dictionary is one of their best publications. (countable)
The publication of the dictionary has been delayed. (uncountable)


Singular nouns

There are some nouns which describe concepts that are either unique or only ever talked about as a single idea. These nouns only occur in the singular form and are referred to as singular nouns. Singular nouns behave like the singular form of countable nouns. They can be used with the definite article the, the indefinite article a/an, and sometimes occur with possessive or demonstrative pronouns, e.g.

The sun was beginning to set.
There was a very relaxed atmosphere.
The project was his brainchild.

Nouns formed from verbs relating to activities which you do not usually do more than once at a time are often singular nouns, e.g.

Suddenly he broke free from her grasp.
I had a browse through the magazines on the table.
Have a listen to this album I bought.

Plural nouns

There are some nouns in English which are considered to be inherently plural. These nouns are referred to as plural nouns. They can be used with the definite article the, possessive or demonstrative pronouns, and words like some and any. Often they refer to things which we think of as consisting of two parts, e.g.

You’ve broken my binoculars.
Can you pass me the scissors?
Those trousers are too big.
I’ve bought some new jeans.

Many other plural nouns also end in s, and always refer to concepts which are thought of as consisting of more than just one thing, e.g.

All the hotel rooms have private facilities.
We were sitting in very pleasant surroundings.
He was found in possession of stolen goods.

Plural nouns are sometimes formed from adjectives when describing a group of people who share a particular characteristic, e.g.

The rich are the only ones who will benefit.
This hospital is designed to meet the needs of the aged.

Collective nouns

Nouns which refer to groups of things or people (e.g. government, team, staff) are often referred to as collective nouns. They differ from plural nouns in that they have the special property of being able to occur with either a singular or plural verb, depending on whether we think of them as a single, collective concept, or a collection of individual things or people, e.g.

My favourite team is losing.
His team are all wearing red.
The committee hasn’t made a final decision.
The committee have all agreed.

Note that in American English, collective nouns usually occur with a singular verb, e.g.

Which team is winning/wearing red?

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