Countable nouns (also known as count nouns) are nouns that can be considered as individual, separable items, which means that we are able to count them with numbers—we can have one, two, five, 15, 100, and so on. We can also use them with the indefinite articles a and an (which signify a single person or thing) or in their plural forms.
Countable nouns contrast with uncountable nouns (also known as non-count or mass nouns), which cannot be separated and counted as individual units or elements. Uncountable nouns cannot take an indefinite article, nor can they be made plural.
Concrete vs. Abstract Countable Nouns
Both concrete and abstract nouns can be countable. Concrete nouns name people, places, or things that are tangible—they can be seen or touched. Abstract nouns, on the other hand, name intangible things, such as ideas, concepts, feelings, or attributes.
Concrete countable nouns
Concrete nouns are a bit easier to understand as being countable—after all, they are things that we can see and feel, and so we can usually count them. Consider the following, for example:
Each of these can be considered as an individual item or unit, which means that we are able to count them:
a few computers
Abstract countable nouns
Even though abstract nouns are not tangible, many of them can still be counted as separable units. Like concrete nouns, they can take a or an or can be made plural.
Consider these abstract nouns:
Now let’s see how they can be counted:
hundreds of emotions
Grammar with countable nouns
When we use countable nouns, certain elements in a sentence will change depending on whether the noun is singular or plural.
Third-person singular vs. third-person plural pronouns
If a countable noun is being represented by a third-person pronoun, we must take care to use the correct singular or plural form.
When a noun is singular and names a person (or, sometimes, a pet) whose gender is known,* then we use the third-person singular he, him, or his (masculine) or she, her, or hers (feminine). For example:
- “The man left early, so I didn’t get a chance to talk to him.” (Man is singular, so it takes the third-person singular pronoun him.)
- “The president has many things that she wants to accomplish in office.” (President is singular, so it takes the third-person singular pronoun she.)
- “We taught our dog to know which bed is his.” (Dog is singular, so it takes the third-person singular pronoun his.)
If the noun names a singular place, thing, or non-domestic animal, then we must use the third-person neuter pronoun it:
- “I hate this computer because it is so slow!”
- “The cow lowed softly as it ate.”
- “Some people dislike this town, but I’ve always loved it.”
When a noun is plural, we use the same third-person pronouns for people, places, animals, and things: they, them, and theirs.* For example:
- “The parade floats are spectacular! I love watching them go down the street.”
- “Bill and Samantha told me they were coming over later.”
- “Make sure the children know which bags are theirs.”
*Usage Note: “Singular they”
English does not have a way of identifying a single person with a pronoun if his or her gender is not known, so sometimes the third-person plural forms (they, them, etc.) are used as a gender-neutral alternative to the third-person feminine/masculine forms. This is sometimes called “singular they.”
While it is still considered incorrect by some writers and writing guides, especially in American English, “singular they” is gradually becoming accepted as the norm, especially in instances with indefinite pronouns that sound plural but are grammatically singular (like anyone in the example above).
Because countable nouns can be either singular or plural, it is very important to use the correct subject-verb agreement when they are functioning as the subject of a clause.
Subject-verb agreement refers to using certain conjugations of verbs for singular subjects and using other conjugations for plural subjects. This happens most noticeably with the verb to be, which becomes is or was with singular subject nouns and are or were with plural subjects.
- “My brother is back from college.” (singular present simple tense)
- “The company was in financial trouble.” (singular past simple tense)
- “Many people are getting frustrated with the government.” (plural present simple tense)
- “The computers were rather old.” (plural past simple tense)
For any other verb, we only need to make a change if it is in the present simple tense. For most verbs, this is accomplished by adding an “-s” to the end if it is singular and leaving it in its base form if it is plural. For example:
- “My father runs his own business.” (singular)
- “But his sons run it when he’s away.” (plural)
- “The dog wags his tail when he is happy.” (singular)
- “Dogs sometimes wag their tails when they’re angry or scared.” (plural)
The verbs have and do also only conjugate for singular subjects in the present simple tense, but they have irregular forms for this: has and does. For example:
- “The apple has a mark on it.” (singular)
- “All the apples have marks on them.” (plural)
- “The teacher does not think it’s a good idea.” (singular)
- “The other teachers do not mind, though.” (plural)
Finally, the modal auxiliary verbs will, would, shall, should, can, could, might, and must do not conjugate for singular vs. plural subjects at all—they always remain the same. For instance:
- “This phone can also surf the Internet!” (singular)
- “Most phones can do that now.” (plural)
- “The president will arrive in Malta next week.” (singular)
- “The other diplomats will arrive shortly after that.” (plural)