Saturday, 5 July 2014

What Is a Countable Noun?

Photo by PhotoMaja

COUNTABLE

Adjective & noun. As adjective also comptable archaic. Late Middle English.
[Old French contable (modern comptable), formed as COUNT verb.]

A1 adj. obsolete. Answerable (to), accountable (for). LME-E19

A2 adj. Able to fit to be counted;
specifically in MATHS = DENUMERABLE. LME

A3 adj. Sensitive to. Only in E17.

A4 adj. GRAMMAR. Of a noun: denoting something of which there is more than one,
able to form a plural or be used with an indefinite article. M20

B noun. GRAMMAR. A countable thing, a countable noun. E20
Two countable slices of uncountable toast
(photo by Reve d'Avion)

What Is a Countable Noun?

Oh yes! Today, Lexicolatry proves that it's willing to get down and dirty, tackling the issues that other language blogs shun, the lexical taboos and grammatical unmentionables they said couldn't, nay mustn't, be addressed. For today, Lexicolatry asks, answers and exposes the question that's been burning inside you ever since you knew it existed thirty seconds ago: What is a countable noun?

Nouns, you see, are divided into two broad categories - countable and uncountable. "What!?" I hear you cry in bespittled astonishment. "But nouns are things! I can count things. Therefore all nouns must be countable." Oh you poor linguistically misguided soul! How long have you wallowed in this grammatical ignorance? How many relationships have ended, how many careers have been closed to you, just because you didn't know the difference between a countable and an uncountable noun? Prepare to be enlightened.

A countable noun is a noun that you can count directly; you can specify the number of them, and it also has a plural form. An example of a countable noun is cat, because you can have a cat, one cat, two cats, three cats, etc. An uncountable noun, however, cannot be counted directly, at least not without making yourself sound like a complete numpty. An example of this is bread. Go on - count bread. A bread, one bread, two bread, three bread, etc. Sounds stupid, right? Rather, for these uncountable nouns, you need some kind of qualifier: a loaf of bread, two loaves of bread, three slices of bread, etc. Other examples of these uncountable nouns include petrol, love, art and flour. Go ahead and try and count them. You'll be utterly befuddled at their sheer uncountability.

Three jerrycans
Jerrycan is countable; petrol isn't

So are all nouns clearly countable or uncountable?

Good question, and the answer is no, as many nouns can be both countable and uncountable, depending on how they're used. An example of this is sugar. If you're talking about the substance generally, then it's usually uncountable, and you'll need to qualify the quantity with such constructions as a bag of sugar, 3 lbs of sugar, four packets of sugar, etc. If, however, you're talking about the sugars that one takes in a cup of tea, then it becomes countable: "Milk and two sugars, please." Other examples that fit into this dual category include hair, coffee and beer.

A woman pulling a silly face
Silliness: definitely uncountable
(silly face by Holly Clarke)

Is there a rule for telling a countable noun from an uncountable one?

You can mainly use common sense. If you can put a number or indefinite article directly before a noun, and it has a plural form, then it's countable: a bird, one bird, two birds, etc. If you can't do this, however, and have to to introduce some qualifying word to indicate number or quantity, then it's uncountable: a slice of toast, a tonne of love, a whole heap of jealousy. 

In truth, this is one of those rules that native English speakers just inherently adhere to without having specifically learnt the rules; there aren't many of us that habitually trip up and accidentally ask our spouse to bring in three breads from the shop. It's useful information, however, for anyone learning a second language, a language in which our handling of nouns won't be second nature and will require us to think about whether they're countable or uncountable.

It's also jolly interesting to know that there are these rules, this whole system of measuring and quantifying the material and immaterial world around us, silently working away in the background of our linguistic programming, rules to which we generally pay no heed because we're obeying them anyway, rules that (perhaps) we never even knew existed -  now that is amazing.

A cup of coffee

Do please enumerate your finest comments in the (definitely countable) box below.

8 comments:

  1. Good article. I find beer very hard to count. I was sure I had more and didn't drink that many. I thought I had a problem but now I realise that is because it's an uncountable noun. Thanks.

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    1. 'Beer' is a curious noun that becomes more and more uncountable the more you have. After a certain point, no noun is countable. Now that's grammar.

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  2. Yes! There always comes that time of year in the life of an EFL teacher. My advice is: keep it simple, especially when you teach kids. "Toast" was always interesting. In Greek by "tost" we mean grilled cheese sandwich, and the word for toast is "freegania", which is countable.

    With more advanced students, we always found the list of dual nouns that change meaning very interesting. I specifically remember "damage" and "damages".

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    1. Hmm. 'Damage' is interesting. Isn't it always uncountable?

      Let me see: There's some damage on my car. I've been awarded damages.

      You'd always have to qualify it, wouldn't you? So: there is a small bit of damage on my car. I've been awarded €100 in damages.

      I can't see a way of counting that ... not off the top of my head.

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    2. Yes, exactly. But in Greece we do count damage so it's very easy for a Greek learner to say damages which has a different meaning altogether. The same with hair. If you add an -s, the meaning changes. There was an entire list: experience-experiences, chocolate-chocolates etc.

      That's what I meant by dual. But I think I used the word wrong. However, in your example of beer, coffee, sugar, how does hair fit? You can say 2 coffees when you want 2 cups of coffee but not two hairs without changing the meaning of hair, right?

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    3. Hair (uncountable) is the mass noun, the general substance that is hair, while hair (countable) is the singular noun for an individual strand.

      "I like your hair." - uncountable

      "There's a hair in my soup." - countable

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