You’ve known how to count since you were a little kid. You’re really good at it. You can count your fingers, your toes, your pets, and the cars on the road. In fact, there’s nothing you can’t count — except uncountable nouns. Try as you might, these nouns remain, well, uncountable.
Uncountable nouns, also known as non-count or mass nouns, are nouns that can’t be counted or quantified. You can’t put determiners such as a, an, one, ten, or any other number in front of them.
Uncountable nouns are not singular or plural, but they always use a singular verb. Examples of uncountable nouns include:
You can put other determiners, such as some, a little, any, or much in front of each of these nouns. However, when you add quantitative determiners, they don’t make sense (ten moneys, many airs, a few understandings).
On the other hand, countable nouns are people, places, things, or ideas that you can count. They have singular forms (a dog, one man, an island) and plural forms (some dogs, two men, many islands) because you can have at least one of them.
While nouns for people and places are generally countable, most liquids, ingredients, chemicals, elements, foods, and other things that can’t be quantified are considered uncountable.
- Is there any pizza left for me?
- The baby spilled juice all over the floor.
- Helium is a non-renewable natural resource.
- We don’t have any flour.
- I’d love some coffee, please.
- Humans breathe oxygen to survive.
- Is the rice ready yet?
- My surfboard is covered in sand.
Another type of uncountable nouns are ideas, also known as abstract nouns. While some ideas can be countable (such as beliefs or fears), most ideas are uncountable and use a singular verb. These nouns include most emotions and states of being.
- It’s common to experience grief when you lose a loved one.
- I feel such peace when you’re around me.
- Are you still experiencing insomnia?
- We admire your courage in difficult circumstances.
- Mark feels stress when he thinks about work.
Nouns that describe abstract ideas are also uncountable. If you add a number in front of them, they just don’t sound right.
- We believe in equality for all.
- Roger’s ambition helped him get the job he wanted.
- After the chaos of the school year, it’s nice to rest during the summer.
- Where did you get your education?
- Focusing on jealousy won’t help you in the long run.
When describing natural phenomena, especially weather, you’ll notice that most nouns are also uncountable.
- Tyler smiled in the warm sunshine.
- It seemed like the rain would last forever.
- We enjoyed playing in the pool to get out of the heat.
- Can you see through the fog?
- Many people have never seen snow.
One tricky question with uncountable vs. countable nouns is whether the word people is countable. You can’t immediately tell how many people are included, so how can it be countable?
The truth is, people is countable. Try the old trick: Add a number in front of it. Two people, fifty people, a thousand people — they all make sense. People is an irregular plural form of the singular person, making it countable, not uncountable.
Some uncountable nouns really sound like they should be countable. However, what’s actually countable are the units of measurement or packages they come in. We’re so used to these common expressions that we don’t always say the entire phrase.
- Can you hand me a water? (a water is short for a bottle of water)
- Each student’s lunch comes with a milk. (A milk is short for a carton of milk)
- I picked up a coffee on my way to work. (a coffee is short for a cup of coffee)
In addition, some countable nouns can also be uncountable when you refer to them as an entire quantity. It all depends on the context of the sentence.
- Countable - Ralph ordered two pizzas.
- Uncountable - Ralph ate pizza for lunch.
- Countable - I made a cake for the party.
- Uncountable - I saved you some cake.
Like all countable and uncountable usages, look for the determiner. If it’s a number or quantitative determiner, it’s countable. If it’s not, it’s uncountable.