Countable and Uncountable Nouns

Have you noticed how the plural form of some English words is the same as the singular? Then there are other words for which the plural is completely different. What is going on with these words, and why don’t they follow the same rules? Well, the difference depends on whether the word is a count or a noncount noun.

What’s a count noun?

A count noun is something that can be discretely counted by assigning numbers to each item. For example, you can discretely count apples, books, people, or similarly defined subjects. Likewise, notice that these nouns form the plural by adding an “s” or changing to an irregular form:

apple → apples
book → books
person → people

So what about noncount nouns?

In contrast, noncount nouns cannot be discretely counted. Consider an abstract idea like “fun”. You can’t say, “there are two funs over there.” What? That doesn’t make any sense, because you know the concept doesn’t work like that — it’s not countable. As a result, the plural is the same as the singluar; if you have a lot of fun, it’s still just “fun”. Other common words of this kind include “food”, “advice”, and “money”, but there are many more. You can always grab a dictionary if you need to double-check whether a word is a count or noncount noun. So, let’s look at the singular and plural forms of these examples:

food → food
advice → advice
money → money

It’s a very simple list, but hopefully it makes the point: the plural of a noncount noun is exactly the same as the singular. “Wow! Look at all that food!” To say “foods” would be improper except in a handful of rare cases, as is true of most noncount nouns.

Counting the count and noncount nouns!

So…if it’s a noncount noun, we can’t count it, right? Not by applying discrete numbers, but the concept of how much of something you have is still relevant.

Use many for count nouns, and use much for noncount nouns.

How many apples are there?
How much food is there?

Use few for count nouns, and use little for noncount nouns.

There are only a few apples.
There is only a little food.

Notice that there is a difference in concept between these modifiers that explains why you can only use them with particular nouns. Both many and a few suggest the idea of something that can be divided into regular units, so, for example, you could tell someone specifically, “there are five ___.” On the other hand, as quantifiers, words like much and little suggest that the subject cannot be easily divided into countable parts — hence the idea of a noncount noun. There are, however, words that work for both.

Use any and some for either count or noncount nouns.

Do you have any apples?
Do you have any food?

We have some apples.
We also have some food.

A lot of, plenty of, and enough can also be used with either count or noncount nouns.

That’s a lot of apples and a lot of food.
At least we have plenty of apples and plenty of food.
There should be enough apples and enough food.

There are also specific rules for the use of the articles “a”, “an”, and “the” that relate to count and noncount nouns. Check that out in the previous article!

Practice Time!

Identify whether the following words are (a) count or (b) noncount nouns then check your answers at the end of the page. First, ask yourself if the plural form is different from the singular (given below), and if you’re still not sure, try matching the word with many or much to see if you can tell which one sounds natural.

  1. Cat
  2. Help
  3. Music
  4. Edit
  5. Information
  6. Thesis
  7. Milk
  8. Radius
  9. Fish
  10. Homework

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(Answers: 1.a 2.b 3.b 4.a 5.b 6.a 7.b 8.a 9.b 10.b)

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