‘I had two meats for my dinner today’. If you think something about that sounds a little off, you’re right! But do you know why it’s incorrect? It’s because, in English, the word ‘meat’ belongs to a group called uncountable nouns. And unlike countable nouns (which, as you might have guessed, can be counted), uncountable nouns cannot be counted with numbers, nor made plural.
In this article, we’re going to look at countable and uncountable nouns in more detail.
Countable vs. uncountable nouns in English
As we mentioned above, English nouns are divided into groups: countable and uncountable. Let’s take a look at what makes them different from each other and how they work.
Countable nouns come in both singular and plural forms:
Singular countable nouns
- They use the article ‘a’ for a general thing that begin with a consonant sound
- ‘I can hear a train going by’. (Any train in general)
- They use the article ‘an’ for general things that begin with a vowel sound
- ‘I just ate an apple’. (Any apple in general)
- They can use the article ‘the’ for specific things
- ‘The old woman at the store was very friendly’. (A specific old woman)
Plural countable nouns
- They can use the article ‘the’ for specific things
- ‘The teachers at that school are very good’. (The teachers at one specific school)
- They often take ‘s’ at the end, but not always
- ‘I love your shoes!’
- ‘Look at those elegant women’.
Uncountable nouns, also known as mass nouns, are different. Here’s what they’re all about:
- They’re often abstract ideas
- love, sadness, honesty
- They’re also objects that are too small or can’t be separated, like liquids, powders or gases
- water, salt, dirt, rice
- Sometimes, they’re collective nouns, representing a group of smaller units
- furniture (a group of chairs, tables, etc.)
- homework (a group of assignments)
- clothing (a group of shirts, trousers, shoes, etc.)
- They don’t have a plural form and cannot be counted with numbers
- You can’t say ‘I’ll have five rices, please’.
- They cannot use ‘a’ or ‘an’
- It’s incorrect to say ‘She ate a salt.’
- They’re used with singular verbs
- Sugar makes me happy.
While we can’t list all the uncountable nouns, here are some common ones you’re likely to come across: music, art, happiness, advice, information, news, sugar, butter, oil, electricity, gas, power, money and meat.
Depending on whether you’re asking about a countable or an uncountable noun, the words you use to form your question will be different.
Questions about countable nouns
When you’d like to know about a specific quantity of countable nouns, you’ll say, ‘How many’ + the plural form of the noun:
- ‘How many sweets did you eat?’
- ‘How many days will you be in Spain?’
Questions about uncountable nouns
To ask about the quantity of an uncountable noun, you should use ‘How much’ + the noun:
- ‘How much oil should I use in this recipe?’
- ‘How much coffee did you drink?’
Quantifiers are words that we use with nouns to indicate quantity. Some quantifiers can be used for both countable and uncountable nouns, and others can only be used for one or the other.
- Many: ‘Many people like to eat eggs in the morning’.
- A few*: ‘I’ve only been here a week and I’ve already made a few new friends!’
- (Very) few*: ‘I don’t think I’ll be travelling this summer. I have very few vacation days’.
- A number of: ‘You can do anything you want! You have a number of career options’.
- Several: ‘What’s going on? There have been several car accidents this month’.
- A large number of: ‘A large number of trees have been cut down in that forest’.
*Note: ‘A few’ means ‘some’ and ‘few’ means ‘not many’.
- Much: ‘Let’s not eat anywhere expensive – I don’t have much money’.
- A little: ‘I have to work in the morning, so I’ll only have a little wine’.
- (Very) little: ‘Don’t talk to him about voting. He has very little knowledge of politics’.
- A bit of: ‘I’d like a bit of cheese on my pasta, please’.
- A great deal of: ‘She fell off her bike and she’s in a great deal of pain’.
- A large amount of: ‘Every Easter, my kids eat a large amount of chocolate’.
- A large quantity of: ‘This cake recipe calls for a large quantity of flour’.
On top of the above quantifiers, ‘containers’ can be used to count uncountable nouns. Here are a few:
- A bag of: flour, sugar, crisps
- A bottle of: ketchup, juice, oil
- A box of: cereal, pasta, washing powder
- A can of: tuna, soup, beer
- A jar of: jam, gherkins, mayonnaise
- A piece of: cheese, meat, chicken, cake
We should mention here that some uncountable nouns can be counted, but the meaning will change. For example, you can say ‘two cakes’ or ‘five chickens’ but that would be referring to two entire cakes or five whole chickens – not just a piece!
Quantifiers for both
- ‘All babies cry sometimes’. (countable)
- ‘All the snow has melted’. (uncountable)
- ‘You don’t eat enough vegetables’. (countable)
- ‘I don’t have enough time to finish this’. (uncountable)
- ‘May I have more french fries?’ (countable)
- ‘The world needs more love’. (uncountable)
- ‘Most kids like to play’. (countable)
- ‘Most of my hair is grey’. (uncountable)
- ‘There are no good shops around here’. (countable)
- ‘I got no help with this project’. (uncountable)
- ‘Can I offer you some crisps?’ (countable)
- ‘I’d like some sugar in my tea’. (uncountable)
- ‘I haven’t had any days off this week’. (countable)
- ‘My doctor told me not to eat any salt’. (uncountable)
- Lots/a lot of
- ‘My sister has lots of friends’. (countable)
- ‘There’s been a lot of rain lately’. (uncountable)
- Plenty of
- ‘There are plenty of vegetarian options on the menu’. (countable)
- ‘She has plenty of hope that the pandemic will be over soon’. (uncountable)
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