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Grammar: Count and Noncount Nouns

Introduction to Count and Noncount Nouns

Count and noncount nouns vary from language to language. In some languages, there are no count nouns (e.g., Japanese). In addition, some nouns that are noncount in English may be countable in other languages (e.g., hair or information).

Errors with count and noncount nouns can result in errors with article usage and with subject verb agreement.

Count Nouns

What is a count noun?

Count nouns can be separated into individual units and counted. They usually have both a singular and a plural form. Most English nouns are count nouns.

  • one phone, two phones
  • one dog, two dogs
  • one shirt, two shirts

However, a few countable nouns only have a plural form in English. Here are a few examples:

  • clothes
  • pants
  • jeans
  • shorts
  • pajamas

These are often used with some sort of quantifier, or quantity word, to show how they are counted (e.g., a pair of pants, two pairs of pants, some pants).

How are count nouns made plural?

Count nouns are usually made plural by adding an –s or an –es.

  • one boy, two boys
  • one folder, two folders
  • one box, two boxes
  • one church, two churches

If the noun ends in –y, change the –y to –ies to make it plural.

  • one family, two families
  • one party, two parties

However, if a vowel proceeds the –y, add an –s to make it plural.

  • one toy, two toys
  • one donkey, two donkeys

If the noun ends in –o, add –es to make it plural.

  • one potato, two potatoes
  • one tomato, two tomatoes

If the noun ends in –f or –fe, change the –f to a –v and add –es.

  • one thief, two thieves
  • one hoof, two hooves

Some count nouns have irregular plural forms. Many of these forms come from earlier forms of English.

  • one foot, two feet
  • one person, two people
  • one tooth, two teeth
  • one criterion, two criteria

When unsure of the plural form, please consult the dictionary. An English Learner’s Dictionary (such as Merriam-Webster, Cambridge, Oxford, or Longman) may be the most useful.

Important: Singular count nouns must have a word in the determiner slot. This could be an article, a pronoun, or a possessive noun (i.e., a/an, the, this, or a possessive noun). Please see our page on article usage for more information.

Noncount Nouns

What is a noncount noun?

Noncount (or uncountable) nouns exist as masses or abstract quantities that cannot be counted. They have no plural form. Although most English nouns are count nouns, noncount nouns frequently occur in academic writing.

Here are some common categories of noncount nouns. Like all things in English (and language in general), there may be exceptions.

A mass: work, equipment, homework, money, transportation, clothing, luggage, jewelry, traffic

A natural substance: air, ice, water, fire, wood, blood, hair, gold, silver

Food: milk, rice, coffee, bread, sugar, meat, water

An abstract concept: advice, happiness, health, education, research, knowledge, information, time

A game: soccer, tennis, basketball, hockey, football, chess, checkers

A disease: diabetes, measles, polio, influenza, malaria, hypothyroidism, arthritis

A subject of study: economics, physics, astronomy, biology, history, statistics

A language: Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, English

An activity (in the –ing form): swimming, dancing, reading, smoking, drinking, studying

 

Important: Noncount nouns do not use the indefinite articles a/an. They can, however, use the definite article the if what is being referred to is specific. They can also use no article if what is being referred to is general (generic) or nonspecific. Please see our page on article usage for more information.

Double Nouns

Some nouns can be both count and noncount. When they change from a count to a noncount noun, the meaning changes slightly. In the noncount form, the noun refers to the whole idea or quantity. In the count form, the noun refers to a specific example or type. When the noun is countable, it can be used with the indefinite article a/an or it can be made plural.

Check the published literature in your field of study to determine whether specific nouns are used in a countable or an uncountable way. Sometimes, a noun that is generally countable becomes uncountable when used in a technical way.

Here are a few examples:

  • life
    • Life is a gift. (noncount)
    • She leads a very fulfilling life. (count = This specifies the type of life. It could be a boring life, a dangerous life, and so on.)
  • cheese
    • I like cheese. (noncount)
    • The cheeses of France are my favorite. (count = This specifies the type of cheese.)
  • language
    • The study of language is called linguistics. (noncount)
    • English is often considered an international language. (count)

Quantity Words

Quantity words are used to add information about the number or amount of the noun. Some quantity words can only be used with countable singular nouns (e.g., computer, pen, and crayon), some can only be used with countable plural nouns (e.g., printers, flashdrives, and keyboards), some can only be used with uncountable nouns (i.e., paper, ink), and some can be used with both plural countable nouns and with uncountable nouns.

With countable singular nouns (e.g., computer, pen, crayon):

  • each
    • each computer
  • every
    • every computer
  • another
    • another computer

With countable plural nouns (e.g., printers, flashdrives, and keyboards):

  • several
    • several printers
  • a large/small number of
    • a large number of printers
    • a small number of printers
  • (not/too) many
    • not many printers
    • too many printers
    • many printers
  • a few*
    • a few printers
  • (very) few*
    • very few printers
    • few printers
  • fewer
    • fewer printers

With uncountable nouns (e.g., paper or ink):

  • a great deal of
    • a great deal of paper
  • a large/small amount of
    • a large amount of paper
    • a small amount of paper
  • (not/too) much
    • not much paper
    • too much paper
    • much paper
  • a little*
    • a little paper
  • (very) little*
    • very little paper
    • little paper
  • less
    • less paper

With countable plural nouns and with uncountable nouns (e.g., printers, flashdrives, keyboards; paper, or ink):

  • some
    • some printers
    • some ink
  • any
    • any printers
    • any ink
  • a lot of
    • a lot of printers
    • a lot of ink
  • hardly any
    • hardly any printers
    • hardly any ink
  • (almost) all
    • (almost) all printers
    • (almost) all ink
  • no
    • no printers
    • no ink
  • none of
    • none of the printers
    • none of the ink
  • not any
    • not any printers
    • not any ink
  • other
    • other printers
    • other ink

*Note the difference between few/little (almost none) and a few/a little (some, but not many/much).  Few/little tend to have a negative connotation. A few/a little tend to be more positive.

  • There are few solutions. (There are not many solutions.)
  • There are a few solutions. (There are some solutions.)
     
  • He received little education. (He did not receive much education.)
  • He received a little education. (He received some education.)

Writing Tools: Using a Dictionary for Grammatical Accuracy Video

Knowledge Check: Count and Noncount Nouns