English, as in many other languages, nouns
are divided into two
categories, known as "count
. It is important to distinguish between these two
Sometimes called "countable
nouns" , these are nouns that refer to things that can
be multiplied or counted, for example:
man, two trees, three things, four faces, five films, six shops, seven sisters, and
These are nouns that refer to
generalisations, abstractions, concepts or substances, things that
cannot be put in
the plural; for example.
So far, so good! That is relatively simple to follow. Concrete
objects and items can be counted, concepts
unfortunately, this easy distinction does not take into account all
psychology, anger, politics, heat, alcohol....
and so on.
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:
In the examples above, the first time the noun is use with a non-count
all like beer, so let's
order three beers.
is vital for life, but
the air in this room is very unpleasant.
heat, but the heat from that radiator is minimal !
- Philosophy is complicated, specially when there are several different philosophies about the same situation
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
and two demonstrative determiners (this
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
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
a non count noun, you must decide which value you wish to give
it in a given context, since this may determine how you
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.)
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".
in the plural
You say "tables"
(or "all tables")
if you mean all tables
in general, but
or "these tables",
etc, if you are referring to just certain
but not all
Examples in context:
tables have flat
surfaces, but the tables in this café don't.
Buses are big vehicles, but the buses in London are enormous.
nouns do not have a
determiner in the singular.
is essential for life..
cases where non-count nouns are used with a determiner, this is because
they are being used with a restricted
or count value.
are not used in the
For example: This oxygen is contaminated.
more on this, see the page on articles.
with count and non-count nouns:
The choice of certain quantifiers
such as much/many,
some and any
depends on whether a noun is a count
noun or a non-count
nouns in the plural, the quantifiers to use are many, few / a few,
(Obviously, quantifiers cannot be used with count
nouns in the singular!)
people speak English.
Few animals escaped from the forest fire.
A few animals escaped from the forest fire. (This
does not mean the same!)
old man was found by some children.
*Some is replaced by
in negative and interrogative contexts.
nouns in the singular, the quantifiers to use are much, little / a little, and
(And remember, non-count
nouns cannot be used in the plural!)
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!)
wasn't any food left in the house.
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