Linguapress English Grammar
Advanced level reading resources Intermediate reading resources English grammar online Language games and puzzles
Linguapress English Grammar

Countable nouns and uncountable nouns 

In English, as in many other languages, nouns are divided into two categories, known as "count nouns"  or "countable nouns" and "non-count nouns" or "uncountable nouns". It is important to distinguish between these two groups .  For instance, in the expression fish and chipsfish, used as a generic noun, is uncountable, whereas chips will always be a count noun.

Distinguishing between
count and non-count nouns

Definitions :

Count nouns

Also 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 generic 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,
and abstractions cannot.
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. But more on that later (click).


Countable nouns  and uncountable nouns are not used in the same way.
Most importantly there are the questions of determiners or articles (the, a an, some and any,  etc.) and quantifiers.

The essential rules are not complicated

RULE 1 ►
Countable nouns
must have a determiner of some kind  in the singular.

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.
RULE 2 ►
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.

Definite article usage quiz. Check how much you know.  In which cases is a determiner required, impossible, or optional?

Problem : Nouns that are either count nouns or non-count nouns 

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

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

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.

Related pages:
Return to English Grammar index

Return to Linguapress home page


Cette page en français: ►
Le groupe nominal en anglais


► Go to  English grammar index
Selected main grammar pages
Verbs: the present tense
Verbs : the future
Past tenses
Verbs of enabling
Gerunds, participles and -ing forms
The imperative
Modal verbs of obligation
Irregular verb tables
Nouns, pronouns, adjectives
Noun phrases
Personal pronouns
Adjectives in English
Some any and no
Sentences & clauses
Relative clauses in English
Conditional clauses in English
Word order in English
Reported questions in English
Language and style 
Word stress in English  with audio
The short story of English
More resources
Reading resources: advanced 
Reading resources: intermediate
Crosswords and word games

Discover Britain - institutions, tourism, life

online shopping
Just click for
clothes,  fashion,  souvenirs, British specialities, sportswear
and more
Discover  UK stores that offer great prices and deliver all over the world

CopyrightCopyright information.
Copyright by  -  Free to view, free to share,  free to use in class, free to print, but not free to copy..
If you like this page and want to share it with others,  just share a link, don't copy.

Linguapress respects your privacy and does not collect personal data. We use cookies only to log anonymous visitor stats and enable essential page functions; click   to remove this message, otherwise click for more details