Lesson 5.3 Countable and Uncountable Nouns

Lesson 5.3 Countable and Uncountable Nouns

5.3.1  Countable and uncountable nouns: Every noun in an English sentence is either countable or uncountable. A countable noun is an individual item with a fixed shape, e.g. a book, while an uncountable noun is a quantity of something which has no fixed shape, e.g. water. (See also Lesson 2.1 Word Classes.)

For example, in the following sentence there are two nouns – the first (pasta) is uncountable and the second (supermarket) is countable:

I bought some pasta at the supermarket.

5.3.2  Unsurprisingly, countable nouns can be counted. There can be one, two, three, or more supermarkets in a town. Countable nouns are also known as ‘count nouns’, especially in American English.

Countable nouns are generally objects with a fixed shape that we can see around us. For example:

…and so on.

Countable nouns have singular and plural forms: one supermarket, two supermarkets. We usually add the letter ‘s’ to make a countable noun plural. (See Lesson 5.1 Singular and Countable Nouns.)

We use article ‘a’ with singular countable nouns that begin with a consonant sound and article ‘an’ with countable nouns that begin with a vowel sound. ‘A’ and ‘an’ always mean ‘one’. For example:

A doctor worked at a hospital in a small town.

An English teacher ate an orange at an inexpensive café.

Singular countable nouns must be preceded by a determiner, usually an article (a or an) or a possessive adjective, e.g. my, your, his, her, etc.

We can say:

My sister bought a new car at an auction near her house.

We cannot say:

Sister bought new car at auction near house.

(See also Lesson 3.1 – Articles.)

5.3.3  As you would expect from the name, uncountable nouns cannot be counted. We cannot buy ‘a pasta’ or ‘three pastas’, but rather we have to buy ‘some pasta’ or ‘a bag of pasta’, among other options. Uncountable nouns are also known as ‘uncount nouns’, especially in American English.

Uncountable nouns often fall into one of the following categories:

…and so on. Many uncountable nouns are food and drink words, which is why we often meet the topic of uncountable nouns in a course unit about food and drink:

In general we do not count liquid matter, so in English most liquids are uncountable. (Exceptions: we can say ‘a milkshake’, ‘an espresso’, and ‘a cappuccino’, etc. since they are individual drinks. See also 5.3.6 below.)

Many abstract nouns are also uncountable, for example:

However, not all abstract nouns are uncountable. Here are some common abstract nouns that are countable:

See also the free worksheet (PDF):

list-of-200-common-countable-abstract-nouns-in-english
.

Uncountable nouns do not have singular or plural forms. There is just one form, e.g. ‘pasta’.

Since there cannot be ‘one’ of an uncountable noun, we cannot use articles ‘a’ or ‘an’. However, we can use ‘the’ or zero article (no article). We also often use the determiner ‘some’ before uncountable nouns in positive sentences, and ‘any’ in question and negative sentences. For example:

I put the pasta in the cupboard.  =  I put specific pasta in the cupboard

I love pasta, don’t you? = I love pasta in general; I love all pasta

Do you want any pasta?

Yes, please. I’d love some pasta.  or

No thanks. I don’t want any pasta.

Although uncountable nouns cannot be singular or plural by definition, they take singular verb forms. For example:

We say:

The pasta is really delicious.

We do not say:

The pasta are really delicious.

The determiners this and that are used with singular and uncountable nouns, while these and those are used with plural nouns. For example:

We say:

(countable noun)           This book is quite interesting.

(uncountable noun)       That ham is delicious.

(plural noun – near)       These trousers are too tight.

(plural noun – far)         Those apples are too expensive.

(See Lesson 3.6 This, That, These, and Those.)

While we do not use ‘a’ and ‘an’ with uncountable nouns, we can add a ‘container’ word to make the amount singular, for example, the phrase ‘a bag of pasta’ in 5.3.3, above. Here are some more examples:

See also the free worksheet (PDF):

understanding-quantities-2

5.3.4  One of the biggest problems with countable and uncountable nouns is knowing which quantifiers to use. Quantifiers are function words that go before nouns and tell us how many or how much of something there is, for example, the words ‘many’ and ‘much’:

Countable noun:            There are many apples in the bowl…

Uncountable noun:        …but there is not much juice in the glass.

It can be easy to make an error by using the wrong quantifier with the wrong kind of noun. For example:

Can I have a few spaghetti, please?       ‘a few’ is only used with countable nouns

I would like a little pears.                       ‘a little’ is only used with uncountable nouns

Students have to learn which quantifiers to use with countable nouns and which to use with uncountable nouns. See the free worksheet (PDF) below for a detailed list:

mega-list-of-quantifiers-in-english

There are many quantifiers which can be safely used with both countable and uncountable nouns. Students should learn these very useful and common quantifiers. For example:

a lot of  /  some  /  any  /  this  /  that  /  more  /  most  /  containers, e.g. a bag of…

The following quantifiers have to match either a countable or an uncountable noun:

Unsurprisingly, quantifiers that refer to numbers and plural quantities can only be used with countable nouns, not uncountable nouns. For example:

You can practice matching quantifiers and countable and uncountable nouns using the cut-out cards on these worksheets (PDF):

20-countable-nouns-and-20-uncountable-nouns
40-quantifiers

Simply cut out the cards and then practise matching together quantifier + noun. Use the Mega-List of Quantifiers in English to help you to get it right, or practise with a teacher to hand! Alternatively, follow the lesson plan below. Listen to the free podcast about this activity here.

  • Possible lesson plan: print the two pages onto thin card, then cut out the cards.
  1. Focussing on the quantifier cards, elicit whether each one can be used with countable or uncountable nouns, or both.
  2. Put all 40 quantifier cards into three groups: used with both groups of nouns; only used with countable nouns; only used with uncountable nouns.
  3. Make phrases by matching pairs: quantifier card + noun card, e.g. ‘a couple of’ + ‘apples’.
  4. Write sentences with the phrases using different tenses.
  • Game: play quantifier/noun snap – make two piles of cards – quantifiers and nouns; then take it in turns with a partner or small group to turn over a card from each pile; if you get a match = snap! 10 points!

5.3.5  Another factor which makes this lesson more complicated is the fact that some very common nouns can be both countable and uncountable, depending on the context of the sentence. Words like: 

cake    education    egg    fish    hair    ice cream    light    love    paper    pizza    time    wind

…can all be countable and uncountable in different contexts. For example:

cake     countable: I made a cake for the party.             uncountable: We ate some cake.

What is the difference? In the first sentence the noun ‘cake’ is a whole individual item that can be counted and has a definite shape, while in the second sentence the noun ‘cake’ means an unspecified amount without a fixed shape. Here are some more examples:

…and there are other common examples too. We have to learn this relatively small group of nouns and remember that they can sometimes be countable and sometimes uncountable, depending on the context.

5.3.6  There is another group of nouns that can be both countable and uncountable – words which should technically be uncountable but which are often made countable in colloquial speech and in slang usage by native speakers who don’t respect grammar rules! 😉 These words are often drinks, such as coffee, tea, cola, and juice. For example:

In fact, native speakers of English can be so comfortable with their language that they feel able to make uncountable nouns countable at will, whenever the need arises. Let’s take the example of ‘toothpaste’. This noun is a substance – something which has no fixed shape. It can be in a small, medium, or large container (usually a ‘tube’), but in general it is a classic uncountable noun due to these characteristics. We can still make it countable in a particular context, for example:

‘I’ve tried loads of different toothpastes, but I prefer this one.’

or:

‘I bought a German toothpaste while I was in Frankfurt last week.’

It would be easy to change the word ‘toothpaste’ for another uncountable noun:

‘I’ve tried loads of different jams / peanut butters / colas…’

…and so on.

You could say that these sentences are incorrect, but English native speakers do use their language in many non-standard ways. Students should be aware of this phenomena and try to use this kind of noun in the same way.

5.3.7  Finally, students often have problems with remembering which nouns are countable and which are uncountable because of their first language. There are many frequently-occurring nouns that are always or usually uncountable in English, but are countable in other languages. For example:

…and so on.

Other problematic words that are usually uncountable in English but may be countable in foreign languages include:

It would be a good idea to check whether any of these words are countable in your first language and then learn them as potentially error-causing words.

Exercises:

Ex. 5.3.1 Writing  Complete the sentences using either a or some:

There is ________________ sand in my shoe.
There is ________________ five pound note in my wallet.
There is ________________ wine in the cupboard.
There is ________________ butter in the fridge.
There is ________________ peanut butter on the worktop.
There is ________________ radio in the kitchen.
There is ________________ toothbrush in the bathroom.
There is ________________ jam in the cupboard.
There is ________________ magazine in the living room.
There is ________________ queue at the post office.
There is ________________ luggage in the car.
There is ________________ suitcase in the bedroom.
There is ________________ flour in the cupboard.
There is ________________ sugar in your tea.
There is ________________ bicycle outside.

Ex. 5.3.2 Writing  Write a, some, or any in the first gap, then write a place in the second gap:

1. Did you buy _______________ newspaper at the _____________________?
2. There is _______________ tea in the ________________________.
3. We posted _______________ letter at the ________________________.
4. I put _______________ Coca-Cola in my ________________________.
5. There was _______________ water in the ________________________.
6. There isn’t _______________ DVD in the ________________________.
7. Is there _______________ chocolate left in the _______________________?
8. I ate _______________ veggie burger at the ________________________.
9. There was _______________ playground near the ____________________.
10. Is there _______________ soap in the ________________________?
11. I asked Clara for _______________ advice at the _____________________.
12. There is _______________ fly on the ________________________.
13. There is _______________ meat in the ________________________.
14. I saw _______________ elephant at the ________________________.
15. There was _______________ new teacher at ________________________.
16. There wasn’t _______________ furniture in the _______________________.
17. My friend is _______________ guitarist in a ________________________.
18. Did you buy _______________ jam at the ________________________?
19. Is there _______________ red towel in the ________________________?
20. I took _______________ fruit out of the ________________________.

Ex. 5.3.3 Writing  Complete the sentences using either a or some:

There is ________________ rice in the cupboard.
There is ________________ dog in the garden.
There is ________________ postman coming to the door.
There is ________________ alcohol in the fridge.
There is ________________ bathroom upstairs.
There is ________________ computer in the office.
There is ________________ oil on the floor.
There is ________________ ice on the windscreen.
There is ________________ shirt in the tumble dryer.
There is ________________ homework to do later on.
There is ________________ food on the table.
There is ________________ cheese in the fridge.
There is ________________ light switch on the wall.
There is ________________ vinegar on your chips.
There is ________________ pen in my pocket.

Ex. 5.3.4 Writing  Write a, some, or any in the first gap, then write a place in the second gap:

1. I put _______________ paper in the ________________________.
2. Please put _______________ salad on your ________________________.
3. I put _______________ knife and fork on the ________________________.
4. Did we have _______________ homework in Mr. Dell’s ________________?
5. I left _______________ piece of paper on the ________________________.
6. There was _______________ interesting news in the __________________.
7. I noticed _______________ smoke in the ________________________.
8. There is _______________ really good song on the ___________________.
9. There isn’t _______________ ketchup in the ________________________.
10. I bought _______________ cucumber at the ________________________.
11. _______________ good weather was forecast on the __________________.
12. There was _______________ cup in the ________________________.
13. There was _______________ snow on the ________________________.
14. Dan found _______________ pound coin at the ______________________.
15. There is _______________ tree in the ________________________.
16. Is there _______________ coffee in the ________________________?
17. Is there _______________ ruler in your ________________________?
18. There wasn’t _______________ honey in the ________________________.
19. There isn’t _______________ typing program on my ___________________.
20.We took _______________ basket from the ________________________.

Ex. 5.3.5 Reading  Put a tick next to the uncountable nouns in this list:

wine
bag
book
chip
egg
air
writing
wall
gas bill
gold
grass
traffic warden
holiday
living room
jam
newspaper
juice
music
beef
oven
shopping
silk
pencil
trousers
desert
weather
blood
steak
wood
wheel

Extra time: write a sentence for each word.

Ex. 5.3.6 Reading  Put a tick next to the uncountable nouns in this list:

cheese
girl
chewing gum
post office
full stop
coffee
word
kettle
electricity
sweet
fresh air
honey
pound coin
lorry
petrol
ice cube
plastic
mist
plate
plant
milk
tennis ball
rice
rain
cat
tennis
door
tea
possibility
vinegar

Extra time: write a sentence for each word.

Ex. 5.3.7 Writing  Look at the shopping list. Write each phrase again using a more appropriate quantity word. For example: ‘a tin of washing-up liquid’ should be ‘a bottle of washing-up liquid’.

Shopping List:

1. a jar of crisps _______________________________
2. a bottle of bread _______________________________
3. a bag of chocolate _______________________________
4. a packet of orange juice _______________________________
5. a tin of ice cream _______________________________
6. a can of chewing gum _______________________________
7. a loaf of sandwiches _______________________________
8. a packet of milk _______________________________
9. a carton of jam _______________________________
10. a bar of cake _______________________________
11. a piece of lemonade _______________________________
12. a bottle of cheese _______________________________
13. a can of lettuce _______________________________
14. a tub of fish _______________________________
15. a box of baked beans _______________________________

Ex. 5.3.8 Writing  Complete the sentences below using one of these words:

bottle  piece  cup  tub  ball  packet  pat  jar  book  plate  tube  can  half  bowl  dozen

1. A ______________________ of margarine.
2. A ______________________ of Coke.
3. A ______________________ of sweets.
4. A ______________________ of string.
5. A ______________________ of toothpaste.
6. A ______________________ of stamps.
7. A ______________________ of raspberry jam.
8. A ______________________ of lager.
9. A ______________________ of tea.
10. A ______________________ of bread and butter.
11. A ______________________ of soup.
12. A ______________________ eggs.
13. A ______________________ of material.
14. A ______________________ of butter.
15. A ______________________ of wine.

Ex. 5.3.9 Writing  Complete the sentences below using one of these words:

plot  spot  vase  pad  flagon  kernel  spoonful  tin  bundle  pan  sachet  jar  pocketful  pile  barrel

1. A ______________________ of medicine.
2. A ______________________ of baked beans.
3. A ______________________ of ale.
4. A ______________________ of paper.
5. A ______________________ of letters.
6. A ______________________ of leaves.
7. A ______________________ of powder.
8. A ______________________ of laughs.
9. A ______________________ of loose change.
10. A ______________________ of flowers.
11. A ______________________ of boiling water.
12. A ______________________ of jam.
13. A ______________________ of bother.
14. A ______________________ of truth.
15. A ______________________ of land.

Ex. 5.3.10 Writing  Complete the sentences below using one of these words:

bottle  piece  slice  carton  bit  bar  pint  tube  hoard  tank  jug  box  segment  catch  bag

1. A ______________________ of petrol.
2. A ______________________ of milk.
3. A ______________________ of lemonade.
4. A ______________________ of cake.
5. A ______________________ of chocolates.
6. A ______________________ of quiche.
7. A ______________________ of orange.
8. A ______________________ of orange juice.
9. A ______________________ of sugar.
10. A ______________________ of chocolate.
11. A ______________________ of news.
12. A ______________________ of beer.
13. A ______________________ of fish.
14. A ______________________ of glue.
15. A ______________________ of treasure.

Further activities – worksheets (PDF) to download:

100-common-uncountable-nouns-in-english
100-common-uncountable-nouns-in-english-add-the-vowel-letters

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