Nouns refer to people, places, and things. They are different from verbs, which are actions, and from adjectives, which describe things. In this article, we’ll discuss two different types of nouns – countable and uncountable nouns. We’ll explain what they are, and the differences between them.
What are countable nouns?
Countable nouns can be counted using numbers. Examples of countable nouns are one bottle, two chairs, three computers, etc.
- Countable nouns can be singular, so a book, a car, an apple, or a pen.
- Countable nouns can be plural, and you can use some in positive sentences, e.g. I have some books; there are some cars over there; we need some apples; the teacher wants some pens.
- You can also use other determiners with countable nouns, e.g. I like these shoes; He needs to buy things like knives and forks for his house; those photos are old.
If you want to ask about something countable, you can ask how many? For example, how many eggs are in the box? How many people are on the bus? How many hours does it take to get there?
What are uncountable nouns?
Uncountable nouns are things that cannot be counted with numbers or separated. They are often objects which are too small to be counted, or liquids, gasses, or abstract ideas. Uncountable nouns examples are, coffee, rain, bread, air, beauty, experience etc.
- Uncountable nouns cannot be used with a/an.
- Uncountable nouns usually do not have a plural form.
- Uncountable nouns are used with a singular verb, e.g. can I have some milk? Can you smell that gas?
- To express an amount with an uncountable noun, you can use expressions such as a little, a lot, much, some or use specific measurements, e.g. 1 kilo, 100 ml etc.
If you want to ask about something uncountable, you can ask how much? For example, how much money do you need? How much water is left in the bottle? How much time do we have?
Can some nouns be both countable and uncountable?
Some nouns can be used as both countable and uncountable nouns, depending on how they are used. Look at the following examples:
- How many spoons of sugar do you have in your tea?
- How much sugar do you have in your tea?
Here, the noun in both sentences is sugar. However, in sentence 1, we can count the spoons of sugar. In sentence 2, the speaker is talking about sugar in general, which cannot be counted. Look at this second example:
- She has grey hair.
- She has a few grey hairs.
Hair is uncountable in English, but hairs can be countable when talking about one, two or a few of something. Another example is, There’s a hair on my plate.
Be careful of nouns that are uncountable in English, but might be countable in your language. Some examples are furniture, advice, information, news and travel.
Also pay attention to nouns that are spelt the same, or look the same. They may have different meanings, but one is countable and the other is uncountable. Look at these examples:
- Can I have a glass, please? (countable)
- The vase is made of glass. (uncountable)
- Do you want a chocolate [from a box of chocolates]? (countable)
- I fancy some chocolate. (uncountable)
Your turn to practise
Decide whether the underlined word in the sentence is countable or uncountable. Think about the reasons for your choices.
- How much rice do I need to use?
Click here to reveal the answer and explanation.Uncountable: how much shows that the noun is uncountable. Rice cannot be counted as there is too much of it. However, you can use rice in a countable way if you say cups of rice etc.
- How many plates shall I put on the table?
Click here to reveal the answer and explanation.Countable: how many shows you can count the noun. Plates are countable.
- What sort of knowledge does she have?
Click here to reveal the answer and explanation.Uncountable: knowledge is an abstract thing and cannot be counted.
- He has three dogs.
Click here to reveal the answer and explanation.Countable: three shows that dogs can be counted.
- Do we need to do a lot of research?
Click here to reveal the answer and explanation.Uncountable: research is uncountable. A lot of can be used with uncountable nouns to express an amount.
- Let me give you some advice.
Click here to reveal the answer and explanation.Uncountable: advice is uncountable as it is an abstract thing that cannot be counted.
- You need to add a pinch of salt.
Click here to reveal the answer and explanation.Uncountable: salt cannot be counted as there is too much of it. However, you can count salt in specific measurements, e.g. spoonfuls etc.
- I’ve made some money from the course.
Click here to reveal the answer and explanation.Uncountable: money is uncountable because we think of it as a ‘whole’ and not just the money you are talking about or in front of you.
Learn more about how to improve your English grammar.
What other countable and uncountable nouns do you know that can be used in a similar way? Share your ideas below!
Billie Jago is an ELT writer and teacher trainer, specialising in digital & assessments. She is the founder of the professional development podcast ELTcpd and co-founder of the digital ELT content agency, otterelt.
very useful and itneresting! thanx!