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Count nouns and non-count nouns

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In English, as in many other languages, nouns are divided into two categories, known as "count nouns" and "non-count nouns". It is important to distinguish between these two groups 

Distinguishing count and non-count nouns


Definitions :

Count nouns

Sometimes called "countable nouns" , these are nouns that refer to things that can be multiplied or counted, for example:
  • one man, two trees, three things, four faces, five films, six shops, seven sisters, and so on.

Non-count nouns

These are nouns that refer to generalisations, abstractions, concepts or substances, things that cannot be put in the plural; for example.
  • water, oxygen, eternity, psychology, anger, politics, heat, alcohol....
           and so on.
So far, so good!  That is relatively simple to follow. Concrete objects and items can be counted, concepts and abstractions cannot. But unfortunately, this easy distinction does not take into account all nouns.

The Problem:

The problem is that there are a lot of nouns that are either count nouns or non-count nouns , depending on the circumstances. In their non-count form or value, they are generalisations, in their count noun form or value their meaning is restricted or slightly different. Look at these examples:
  • We all like beer, so let's order three beers.
  • Air is vital for life, but the air in this room is very unpleasant.
  • Radiators should produce heat, but the heat from that radiator is minimal !
  • Philosophy is complicated, specially when there are several different philosophies about the same situation
In the examples above, the first time the noun is use with a non-count generalising value,
beer,   air,   heat,  philosophy
but the second time these nouns are used they have the restricted value of count nouns:  for this reason, they must be introduced by a determiner; in the examples, the determiners are a numeral (three), two articles (the) and two demonstrative determiners (this and that).
three beers,   the air in this room,   the heat from that radiator,  several different philosophies.

The fact that some nouns can have either a non-count value or a count value does not always mean that we can actually count them!  Many abstractions cannot  be put in the plural; for example
  • We could never say There are two different airs in these two rooms.
  • we cannot say musics or patiences
  • though as the examples show, we can say several different philosophies.

It is context that will usually indicate whether a noun is a count noun or a non-count noun.

Usage:

When writing or talking English, it is essential to know whether the noun you are going to use is a count noun, or functioning as a count noun, or if it is a non-count noun, or functioning as one. If the noun you want to use can be either a count noun or a non count noun, you must decide which value you wish to give it in a given context, since this may determine how you express your sentence.
  The reason is simple; count noun  and non-count nouns are not used in the same way.
     To start with, there are the questions of determiners (the, a an, some and any,  etc.) and quantifiers

     Count noun must have a determiner of some kind  in the singular; but in the plural, they require a determiner if they are used with a restricted value, no determiner if they are used as generalisations.
Examples in the singular
you can say a table, this table, my table, one table, etc.  but never just "table".
Examples in the plural
You say "tables" (or "all tables") if you mean all tables in general,  but
"the tables" or "these tables", etc, if you are referring to just certain tables,
      but not all tables.
Examples in context:
Usually, tables have flat surfaces, but the tables in this café don't.
Buses are big vehicles, but the buses in London are enormous.
     

     ► Non-count nouns do not have a determiner in the singular.
Example: Oxygen is essential for life..
They are not used in the plural.
In cases where non-count nouns are used with a determiner, this is because they are   being used with a restricted or count value.
   For example: This oxygen is contaminated.          

For more on this, see the page on articles.


Quantifiers with count and non-count nouns:

The choice of certain quantifiers such as much/many,  few/little, some and any depends on whether a noun is a count noun or a non-count noun.

With count nouns in the plural, the quantifiers to use are many, few / a few, and some*. (Obviously, quantifiers cannot be used with count nouns in the singular!)

     Many people speak English.
     Few animals escaped from the forest fire.
     A few animals escaped from the forest fire. (This does not mean the same!)
     The old man was found by some children.
*Some is replaced by any in negative and interrogative contexts.

With non-count nouns in the singular, the quantifiers to use are much, little / a little, and any. (And remember, non-count nouns cannot be used in the plural!)
     There wasn't much water left.
     There was little food left in the house
     There was a little food left in the house. (This does not mean the same!)
     There wasn't any food left in the house.

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