What’s the difference between a rabbit and wisdom? One is a countable noun, and one is an uncountable noun. (Sorry, there wasn’t much of a punchline there.) It may not seem like the differences between countable and uncountable nouns matter much, but the person reading your sentences — or the wise rabbit — probably wants you to use them correctly.
Singular countable nouns require singular verbs, and plural countable nouns require plural verbs (known as subject-verb agreement). They also use quantitative determiners that show how many nouns there are, such as a, an, the, one, a few, many, or several.
- A donkey trots around the yard. (donkey is singular; it uses the singular verb trots)
- One scone has raisins. (scone is singular; it uses the singular has)
- A few people ask for more time. (people is plural; it uses the plural ask)
- Three puppies jump over each other. (puppies is plural; it uses the plural jump)
Uncountable nouns only have a singular form, so they only use singular verbs. Uncountable nouns use determiners that show amount, not number (such as some, much, any, or enough). They can also use the, just like countable nouns.
- Some research suggests that the product is not safe. (research is uncountable; it uses the singular suggests)
- Does the air smell strange to you? (air is uncountable; it uses the singular does)
- This grass is very itchy. (grass is uncountable; it uses the singular is)
- Flour helps baked goods keep their structure. (flour is uncountable; it uses the singular verb helps)
Rabbit is a countable noun because you can count rabbits. You can have one, two, or a hundred rabbits. Just put the number (or the article a or an) in front of rabbits, and you’ll know how many there are.
On the other hand, wisdom is an uncountable noun because you can’t put a number in front of it. Five wisdoms doesn’t make any sense. Neither does a wisdom or a few wisdoms. (You won’t sound very wise if you say it this way.)
Tip: If a noun is plural, it’s certainly a countable noun.
- Uncountable - Can you get me some water?
- Countable - Can you get me a cup of water?
- Uncountable - Oliver would like more rice.
- Countable - Oliver would like another bowl of rice.
- Uncountable - How much sugar does this recipe need?
- Countable - How many tablespoons of sugar does this recipe need?
- Uncountable - Make sure there’s enough pizza for Tom.
- Countable - Make sure there’s a piece of pizza for Tom.
Mixing up fewer and less is a common grammar error. And while they seem to mean the same thing (what’s the difference between fewer apples and less apples, anyway?), they’re quite different — and it all has to do with countable and uncountable nouns.
Fewer is only for countable nouns. It’s the comparative form of the determiner few, and means “a smaller number than.” Since countable nouns are the only nouns with numbers, they only use fewer.
- You have fewer freckles than I do. (freckles is countable)
- There are fewer ducks on the lake than before. (ducks is countable)
Less is only for uncountable nouns. It compares the amount of an uncountable noun, not the number.
- We’ve had less rain this year than we did last year. (rain is uncountable)
- Why do I get less soda than she does? (soda is uncountable)
An exception to this rule is with units of time and money. Time and money always use less, even when the units are countable (The painting costs less than five dollars, or We spent less than two hours at the museum). Because you’re talking about an uncountable amount of time or money, use less.
Can you tell the difference between the countable and uncountable nouns in these sentences?
- How much gum do you want?
- Those bears aren’t going to hurt us.
- Let’s add another cup of milk to the dough.
- There’s so much love in this house.
- Ten police cars zoomed past us.
- We scored fewer points in the first half than in the second half.
- Several witnesses saw the robbers sneaking through the window.
- Can you pour me some tea?
Finding the different types of nouns can be a bit tricky — but you can do it.
- How much gum do you want? (gum is uncountable)
- Those bears aren’t going to hurt us. (bears is countable)
- Let’s add another cup of milk to the dough. (milk is uncountable — though cup of milk is countable)
- There’s so much love in this house. (love is uncountable)
- Ten police cars zoomed past us. (police cars is countable)
- We scored fewer points in the first half than in the second half. (points is countable)
- Several witnesses saw the robbers sneaking through the window. (witnesses is countable)
- Can you pour me some tea? (tea is uncountable)