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Count and Noncount Nouns


Knowing the difference between count and noncount nouns will help you do the following:

Count vs. Noncount

The main difference between count and noncount nouns is whether or not the things they refer to can be counted.

Count nouns refer to things that can be divided up into smaller units which are separate and distinct from one another. They usually refer to what can individually be seen or heard:
table
chair
word
remark
finger
bottle
award
candidate

Noncount nouns refer to things that cannot be counted because they are regarded as wholes which cannot be divided into parts. They often refer to abstractions and occasionally have a collective meaning:
anger
furniture
warmth
leisure
education
courage
progress
weather

Illustration: Think of the batter from which a cake is made. Before putting the batter into the oven, you cannot divide it into its parts because it is a liquid mix. Once it has been baked, however, it becomes solid enough to be cut into pieces. Think of noncount nouns as the batter which forms a mass, and think of the pieces of cake as the count nouns which may be numbered and distributed.


Pluralizing

The Rules

This rule works for the nouns in the list of examples in the first section.

Exception: The rule needs to be slightly revised for a number of nouns. Certain nouns in English belong to both classes: they have both a noncount and a count meaning. Normally, the noncount meaning is abstract and general, and the count meaning is concrete and specific.

Compare the changes in meaning of the following nouns if they work as count or noncount nouns:

Count
Noncount
The researcher had to overcome some specific problems to collect the data. The researcher had no problem finding studies that supported his view.
The political arguments took the nation to a situation of political instability. The author's argument was unsupported and stereotypical.
There were bright lights and harsh sounds. Light travels faster than sound.

Special Case: A special case is the use of the mass/count distinction for the purpose of classification. The nouns which function both ways mainly denote foods and beverages: food(s), drink(s), wine(s), bread(s), coffee(s), and fruit(s).

Examples:

Units
Mass
Several types of French wines are grown in the French Riviera. The crops of Columbia coffee are more resistant to dry climate than are the crops of Brazilian coffee.

A Revision of the RulesThe exceptions require that the rule for pluralizing be revised: count nouns and nouns used in a count sense can be pluralized; noncount nouns and nouns used in a noncount sense cannot.

Pluralizes with -s
Does not Pluralize
Count Noun
X
Count Use
X
Noncount Noun
X
Noncount Use
X


Articles

Nouns that Take Articles

Choosing which article to use with a noun is a complex matter because the range of choices depends on whether the noun in question is count or noncount, singular or plural.

The following chart shows which articles go together with which kinds of nouns. The demonstratives (this, that, these, those) have been included because they also mark the noun they modify as definite or specific.

A/An
The
This/That
These/Those
Count
Singular
X
X
X
Plural
X
X
Noncount
Singular
X
X
Plural

Note: Noncount nouns are always singular.


© 1997, 1998, 1999 The Write Place

LEO: Literacy Education Online

This page was originally written by Mark Le Tourneau at Purdue University. It was revised and then redesigned for the Web by Maggie Escalas for the Write Place, St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, Minnesota, and may be copied for educational purposes only. If you copy this document, please include our copyright notice and the name of the writer; if you revise it, please add your name to the list of writers.

Last Update: 5 October 1999

URL: http://leo.stcloudstate.edu/grammar/countnon.html