Today we’re going to discuss count nouns and noncount nouns. Counting in English can be a difficult concept to master because some nouns can be used with numbers while others cannot. We refer to those nouns that can express a quantity as count nouns. Noncount nouns are those nouns which cannot be used with numbers. They are not capable of expressing quantities.
A count noun is one that can be expressed in plural form. They may be preceded by a/an or one in the singular form (an apple, one student) and take a final s/es (apples, students) in the plural form. Plural count nouns can express quantities in terms of number (one, two, three, etc.) and amount (some, a lot, many, etc.).
Examples of Singular Count Nouns
I bought an apple.
One student sat at the desk.
I bought two apples.
I bought some apples.
I bought a lot of apples.
I bought many apples.
Two students have sat at that desk.
Some students have sat at that desk.
A lot of students have sat at that desk.
Many students have sat at that desk.
Noncount nouns cannot be expressed in plural form. They consist of (among other things) whole groups made of similar items, fluids, solids, gases, particles, abstractions, languages, fields of study, recreation, activities, and natural phenomena. You can express noncount nouns in terms of amount but never in terms of number.
A noun that refers to a whole group made of similar items cannot express a quantity. However, a group noun can be preceded by a unit expression to help it express a quantity.
Mark gave his wife three jewelry for their anniversary.
“Jewelry” cannot be made plural. Therefore it cannot be used to express a quantity.
Mark gave his wife jewelry for their anniversary.
We know from this sentence that Mark gave his wife some type of jewelry. If you want to express the exact quantity of jewelry, you can include a unit expression.
Mark gave his wife three pieces of jewelry for their anniversary.
You can also rewrite the sentence with count nouns that refer to specific pieces of jewelry.
Mark gave his wife a necklace, a broach, and a pair of earrings for their anniversary.
Fluids, Solids, Gases, and Particles
Nouns such as water, coffee, tea, ice, bread, butter, steam, air, oxygen, rice, dirt, and sugar cannot be used to express a quantity. You need to add a unit expression in order to count fluids, solids, gasses, and particles.
Jane made herself a tea.
The recipe called for one sugar.
Jane made herself tea.
The recipe requires for sugar.
With Unit Expressions
Jane made herself a cup of tea.
The recipe requires a spoonful of sugar.
Our server brought our table five glasses of water.
Abstract concepts, by their very nature, cannot be quantified. It is impossible to express emotions or states of being in numerical terms. This also means that you cannot use unit expressions with them.
Rachel took four prides in volunteering.
Rachel took pride in volunteering.
Rachel took some pride in volunteering.
Rachel took a lot of pride in volunteering.
Rachel took a great deal of pride in volunteering.
Rachel took little pride in volunteering.
Acts of nature, such as weather, rain, sleet, snow, and thunder, are frequently used as noncount nouns.
Georgia’s weather is unpredictable.
I felt the rain on my jacket.
I rarely have to brush snow off my car.
I heard thunder in the distance.
You can use unit expressions with many types of natural phenomena.
Georgia received ten inches of rain this past weekend.
We’re expecting three inches of snow tonight.
I heard a single clap of thunder.
Nouns That Have Count and Noncount Meanings
English has many nouns that can function as either count or noncount nouns. These nouns can be especially challenging for non-native English speakers because whether they are considered count or nouncount nouns depends on how they are used. They can be made plural in some instances but not in others.
Count Usage – To express a quantity
Julie left a hair on her pillow.
This example refers to the specific number of hairs left on the pillow.
James forgot to turn off the light when he left the studio.
There was one particular light that James forgot to turn off.
Noncount Usage – To describe a quality or condition
Julie has blonde hair.
Opening the curtains filled the studio with natural light.
These examples describe the color of Julie’s hair and the type of light that filled the studio.