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).
Most common nouns can be counted. As a result, they have both a singular and plural form:
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 have only a singular form:
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.
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.
|No Determiner (sg.)||hamster|
|No Determiner (pl.)||hamsters|
|Indefinite pronoun||a hamster|
|Definite pronoun (sg.)||the hamster|
|No Determiner (sg.)||money|
|No Determiner (pl.)||moneys|
|Indefinite pronoun||a money|
|Definite pronoun (sg.)||the money|
|No Determiner (sg.)||Rome|
|No Determiner (pl.)||Romes|
|Indefinite pronoun||a Rome|
|Definite pronoun (sg.)||the 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.
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.
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.