Count and Noncount Nouns

Introduction

When we classify common nouns (as opposed to proper nouns), we can make a distinction between count and noncount nouns. Most nouns are countable. They have a singular and a plural form and can easily be numbered. We can distinguish between one book and thirty-three books. We can count the number of stairs on a ladder and, theoretically, the stars in the sky.

A much smaller category consists of noncount nouns. These nouns describe a single mass, kind, or category. For instance, we say milk, but not milks. We ask people if they like poetry, not poetries.

Some nouns can fall into either group, but the distinction remains a useful one. Knowing whether a noun is countable or not will help us determine if it needs an article (a, the).

Count Nouns

Most common nouns can be counted. As a result, they have both a singular and plural form:

Tree, trees
Curtain, curtains
Ball, balls

There are a few countable nouns that only have a plural form (e.g., jeans, glasses), but those are the exception to the rule.

Tip: You can add many to a count noun (many trees), but not much (much trees).

Noncount Nouns

Noncount nouns have only a singular form:

Anger
Homework
Porcelain

We can’t take something like anger and start counting how many angers there are.

A bit more confusing is a word like money. We count money all the time, but we do so using different words such as dollars, bills, and coins. The more general concept of money does not have a plural (moneys).

Noncount nouns do not use the indefinite article (a, the). You wouldn’t say a furniture or an advice. Noncount nouns also don’t work with certain quantifiers (these, those, every, either).

The easiest way to check if you’re dealing with a noncount noun is to see if you can add much (e.g., much money), but not many (e.g., not many money).

Here is a select list of some common noncount nouns:

Nature: air, water, fire, sunshine …

Materials: glass, leather, steel …

Quantity or mass: clothing, furniture, equipment …

Food: milk, wine, wheat …

Abstract: advice, chaos, progress …

Disciplines: history, economics, political science …

Games and Sports: rugby, soccer …

Illnesses: malaria, measles …

Actions (ending in -ing): laughing, running, flying ….

What is a noncount noun in English may be a count noun in another language. In short, determining if something is countable is somewhat arbitrary, so don’t stress if you find some of this confusing.

Comparison

To understand how articles are used with count and noncount nouns, it’s useful to compare how nouns work within a sentence.

The following tables summarize whether you can add each noun to complete the sentence I see … Words in red are considered incorrect.

Count Noun
No Determiner (sg.) hamster
No Determiner (pl.) hamsters
Indefinite pronoun a hamster
Definite pronoun (sg.) the hamster
Many the hamsters
Many many hamsters
Much much hamsters
Noncount Noun
No Determiner (sg.) money
No Determiner (pl.) moneys
Indefinite pronoun a money
Definite pronoun (sg.) the money
Many the moneys
Many many money
Much much money
Proper Noun
No Determiner (sg.) Rome
No Determiner (pl.) Romes
Indefinite pronoun a Rome
Definite pronoun (sg.) the Rome
Many the Romes
Many many Romes
Much much Rome

Clearly, proper nouns act very differently, and normally don’t take articles or quantifiers.

Count nouns don’t work well with much or by themselves in the singular.

By comparison, noncount nouns can function without any determiner in the singular, but they don’t have a plural form, don’t use an indefinite article, and work with much rather than many.

Overlap

There are some nouns that can be classified as count or noncount nouns, depending on how they’re used. Compare the following uses:

I’ve had some wonderful experiences driving a double-decker bus.

Do you have experience driving a double-decker bus?

I tried several delicious Dutch cheeses.

Dutch cheese is wonderful!

Three coffees please!

I’m addicted to coffee.

In each case you should determine if the noun is used to indicate a general category or mass of something, or if it refers to something specific that can be counted.

Conclusion

English is a difficult language, and there are many complexities we haven’t covered. Compare for instance, the following sentences:

Do you have the courage to do the polar dip?

He showed courage to jump into the freezing water.

Since courage is a noncount noun, it works without any determiner, but in other contexts you may want to specify a certain type of courage (the courage). These subtle distinctions are hard to learn, but will become clearer over time.

Writing Challenge 2 (250 Words)

Introduction

In this lesson, we’ll be writing a short essay (with a minimum of 250 words). The writing prompt is one that you might on an English proficiency test such as the IELTS writing test (task 2):

Question: Should your city ban the use of plastic bags? Discuss both sides and give your opinion.

If you would like to practice your own writing, make sure you complete a draft before you look at the examples below.

First Draft

Our writer has decided to argue that plastic bans should not be banned. The rough draft nicely comments on both sides of the issue. However, the arguments for using plastic bags can be strengthened. In addition, the writing requires significant editing. Click on the underlined words and phrases for tips and suggestions:

Plastic base products like bags have undeniable effects in our life. These effects are positive and negative at the same time. The negative impact of these products has caused some worrisome among scientists and environmentalist activists in a way some of them believe they plastic bags should be banned in cities while the former opinion has some opponents.

People who believe the plastic bags should be eliminated in the cycle of urban life have some reasons. To begin with, these goods are serious threat to the environment. In fact, they change to a long time remaining pollution which cause damages to the nature. For example, most of us can remember documentaries showing animals got stuck in the wastes in the sea such as fishes or turtles. Moreover, the process of production of these commodities is another part which impacts the environment, from the material which is wasted to make these bags to the energy wasted to operate these cycle of production. For instance, to be built, different chemical hazards emitted toxic gases and different material such as crude oil should be extracted and get consumed.

On the other hand, people who disagree with the former group has their own justifications. Firstly, by banning these products all people working in this industry lose their job. Indeed, to make a plastic bag a group of different workers are needed and so they will lose their occupation by banning the plastic bags. Furthermore, plastic bags have some qualities which make it unreplaceable by other products. Firstly, they are cheap, which makes them a suitable choice for packing. Secondly, they are waterproof and light. The mentioned characteristics make plastic bags unique in the purposes they are used.

In conclusion, there are opposing views about the banning plastic bags. I am personally of the opinion that if we find a proper replacement for plastic bags, the benefits of banning them outweigh the benefits of continuing their use.

Revised Draft

Our second draft retains the argument, but uses more direct and concrete language. We also want the reader to know our thesis right from the start. The result is an essay that flows smoothly and naturally.

Everyone knows that plastic bags are bad for the environment. The real question is what to do about this problem. If my city wanted to forbid the use of plastic bags, I would be opposed to an outright ban. I think a better approach is to encourage and incentivize people to minimize the use of plastic products.

Plastic bags do great damage to the natural world, and their use should be limited. We’ve all seen documentaries showing fish or turtles getting trapped in plastic waste. Indeed, I am horrified when I read stories of washed-up sharks with stomachs full of garbage. In addition, the production of plastic bags may also lead to increased pollution. I am not an expert on chemical hazards or toxic gases, but I imagine that the factories that produce these bags are not eco-friendly. It therefore seems unconscionable to use a plastic bag a single time and then throw it away.

On the other hand, a complete ban may do more harm than good. Not only will workers lose their jobs, but plastic bags have qualities that make them difficult to replace with other products. Plastic bags are great for packing, as they are waterproof and light. We will still need plastic bags for storing things and for holding waste (even dog poop!). If people are unable to reuse plastic shopping bags, they will inevitably buy their bags, but these tend to be thicker and so require even more plastic. In addition, the production of paper bags (a common replacement) is even more energy intensive, and may do more damage to the environment.

The best solution, then, is not to ban plastic bags but to encourage people from using them recklessly. When stores charge a small fee per plastic bags, customers adapt by bring cloth bags or by using fewer bags. Such small changes are better for the environment and still allow people to use plastic bags when necessary.

If you read just the first sentence of each paragraph, you’ll note how clearly the argument is organized. In many ways revising is about simplifying our language, making it less abstract and wordy. Take your time developing your point and don’t cram too much into one sentence.

Acknowledgments

My thanks to ESL student Reza for permission to share his first draft.

Count and Noncount Nouns Activity

Instructions

For this exercise we’ve provided two passages to correct. As you edit each selection, please check for the following mistakes:

  • The improper use of articles (a, an, the)
  • The incorrect use of determiners (many, much, some, etc.)
  • The wrong form of the noun (singular or plural)

Hint: Each passage contains 10 errors. Tip: Read the passage aloud to catch the mistakes.

Passage 1



Passage 2



Plagiarism and International Students

Introduction

Plagiarism is the copying of other people’s words and ideas without giving proper credit.

As the chair of a university department, I see more cases of plagiarism from international students than from native English speakers.

I don’t believe the instructors who catch ESL students cheating are necessarily prejudiced or racist. There is plenty of research that shows that international students do plagiarize in greater numbers.

Why is that? Do international students lack a moral code? Of course not. Instead, they are faced with challenges that make plagiarism a more tempting option.

This lesson functions as a supplement to our introduction to plagiarism. Below you will find some extra advice geared to ESL students.

Causes

It is important for teachers and students alike to recognize why international students are more likely to plagiarize. Here are the key factors:

  • ESL students are often under enormous financial and family pressures. They may need to earn a degree so they and their loved ones can immigrate to Europe or North America.
  • The language barrier makes it very difficult to “use your own words.” How can you paraphrase an idea when you can’t easily think of different words to use?
  • International students often work in groups to help each other succeed. This often leads to copied work and similar answers.
  • Students are hesitant to ask for help.
  • Cultural attitudes to knowledge and instruction are different in non-Western countries.

Understanding these obstacles goes a long way to solving the problem. For instance, instructors may need to spend more time teaching proper paraphrasing and may want to be more lenient when students have a limited vocabulary.

Originality

It is worth expanding on the problem of cultural difference. In Western countries, instructors often have very different research expectations. They want students to think for themselves and come up with original ideas.

To international students that may come as a surprise. After all, in other cultures the student often strives to become like the teacher. The pupil is a copy of the master.

For instance, many students from India mistakenly think that their professors would be pleased if their essay states exactly what the teacher said in class. Isn’t the professor the authority on the subject, so why not copy his or her ideas? Or what if your essay argued something different than what the professor said? Wouldn’t you get a lower mark for criticizing the expert?

However, in the West you can dispute your professor’s ideas or present a different perspective. You can also explore an issue that was not discussed in class. In fact, most instructors assign topics and projects that were not fully explored and require the student to do independent research.

This is not to say that you can never use the instructor’s ideas. That would defeat the point of teaching. You can definitely use some class material in an essay, but make sure you explain the ideas using your own words. If in doubt, cite the specific lecture.

In sum, it’s not good if you present no original perspective, if you do not go beyond what you picked up in class. Even if your argument is roughly the same as your teacher’s, you need to find new examples and test cases. In that case, your instructor will be watching for how you apply the ideas in new and interesting ways.

Conclusion

Education is the first step to plagiarism prevention. Instructors should spend time explaining the value of research, as well as teaching paraphrasing and citation skills. We also recommend that international students complete our plagiarism quizzes to ensure they fully understand the concept.