An article on ways to approach teaching countability and noun types.
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:
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.
Countability and the article system
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.
my older brother
this correct example
They also occur with each, every and one, e.g.
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.
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.
Plural countable nouns often occur with numbers greater than one, and some and any, e.g.
We also frequently use many and a few with plural countable nouns, e.g.
She didn’t pass many exams.
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.
Uncountable nouns frequently occur with no article at all, e.g.
Uncountable nouns often occur with some and any, e.g.
We also sometimes use much and a little with uncountable nouns, e.g.
We can refer to an amount of the quality or substance represented by an uncountable noun by using certain quantifying phrases, e.g.
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:
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 fireplace is made of stone. (uncountable)
I like eating fish and chips out of newspaper. (uncountable)
Nouns denoting food and drink often behave in this way, e.g.
I’ve never liked the taste of coffee. (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 has always been good at drawing. (uncountable)
A disadvantage of the house is the constant noise from the road. (uncountable)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Plural nouns are sometimes formed from adjectives when describing a group of people who share a particular characteristic, e.g.
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.
Note that in American English, collective nouns usually occur with a singular verb, e.g.
Nouns and phrases
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Countability and noun types - article