Uncountable Nouns

Definition

Nouns that cannot be divided or counted as individual elements or separate parts are called uncountable nouns (also known as mass nouns or non-count nouns). These can be tangible objects (such as substances or collective categories of things), or intangible or abstract things, such as concepts or ideas. Nouns that can be divided are called countable nouns, or simply count nouns.
Here are some examples of uncountable nouns:
Substances
Collective categories
Abstract ideas or concepts
wood
smoke
air
water
furniture
homework
accommodation
luggage
love
hate
beauty
intelligence
arrogance
access
news*
(*Even though news ends in an “-s,” it is uncountable. We need this “-s” because without it, news would become new, which is an adjective.)

Using articles with uncountable nouns

Uncountable nouns cannot take the indefinite articles “a” or “an” in a sentence, because these words indicate a single amount of something. For example:
(We often use the words “some” or “any” to indicate an unspecified quantity of uncountable nouns. We’ll investigate this more in a later part of this section.)
Although uncountable nouns cannot take a or an, they are sometimes able to take the definite article the, as in:
  • “Have you heard the news?”
  • The furniture in my living room is old.”
However, this is only the case if a specific uncountable noun is being described. For example:

Uncountable nouns are not plural

Third-person singular vs. third-person plural pronouns

Just as uncountable nouns cannot take the indefinite articles “a” or “an” because there is not “one” of them, it is equally incorrect to use third-person plural pronouns with them, as they are not considered a collection of single things. For example:
  • Person A: “Your hair looks very nice today.”
Note that single hairs become countable. If there are two hairs on your jacket, you can say “hairs” or use the plural pronoun “they.” The hair on your head, however, is seen as an uncountable noun.

Plural forms of the noun

We also cannot make uncountable nouns plural by adding “-s” on the end. Again, they are grammatically regarded as single, collective units. For example:

Subject-verb agreement

Because uncountable nouns cannot be plural, it is very important to use the correct subject-verb agreement. Subject-verb agreement refers to using certain conjugations of verbs with singular vs. 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. Because uncountable nouns are grammatically singular, they must take singular forms of their verbs.
Here are a few examples illustrating this distinction:

Measurements of distance, time, and amount

A notable exception to the subject-verb rule we just discussed relates to countable nouns that are describing measurements of distance, time, or amount. In this case, we consider the sum as a singular amount, and so they must take singular forms of their verbs. For example:

Making uncountable nouns countable

If we want to identify one or more specific “units” of an uncountable noun, then we must add more information to the sentence to make this clear.
For example, if you want to give someone advice in general, you could say:
  • “Can I give you advice?” or;
  • “Can I give you some advice?”
But if you wanted to emphasize that you’d like to give them a particular aspect or facet of advice, you could not say, “Can I give you an advice?” Instead, we have to add more information to specify what we want to give:
  • “Can I give you a piece of advice?”
By adding “piece of” to the uncountable noun advice, we have now made it functionally countable. This means that we can also make this phrase plural, though we have to be careful to pluralize the count noun that we’ve added, and not the uncountable noun itself. For example:
  • “Can I give you a few pieces of advice?”

Using quantifiers with uncountable nouns

As we’ve already seen, certain quantifiers (a kind of determiner that specifies an amount of something) can only be used with uncountable nouns, while others can only modify countable nouns. While we will examine these more in depth in the chapter on Determiners, here are a few examples that cause particular confusion.

Too – Too Much – Too Many

We use too + an adjective to mean “beyond what is needed or desirable,” as in, “It is too big.”
Too much, on the other hand, is used to modify uncountable nouns, while too many is used with countable nouns—they are not used with adjectives. For example, the following sentences would both be incorrect:
One particular source of confusion that can arise here is the fact that much can be used as an adverb before too to give it emphasis, as in:
We also must be sure not to use too much with a countable noun, nor too many with an uncountable noun.

Fewer vs. Less

The conventional rule regarding less vs. fewer is that we use fewer with countable nouns and less with uncountable nouns. For example:
The rule carries over when we add words to an uncountable noun to make a countable phrase (as we looked at above). We can see this distinction in the following examples:

Measurements of distance, time, and amount

As we noted above, measurements of distance, time, or amount for nouns that we would normally consider countable (and thus plural) end up taking singular verbs. Likewise, these terms also take the word less, most often in the construction less than. For example:
  • $20,000 is less than we expected to pay.”
  • “We walked less than 50 miles to get here.”
  • “We have less than two hours to finish this project.”
  • “I weigh 20 pounds less than I used to.”
Note, however, that we generally can’t use less before these kinds of nouns:
Less is also used with countable nouns in the construction one less _____, as in:
  • “That is one less problem to worry about.”
Fewer can also be used (albeit less commonly), but the construction usually changes to one ______ fewer, as in:
  • “That is one problem fewer to worry about.”

Rule or non-rule?

It is important to note that many grammar guides dispute the necessity of this supposed “rule,” referencing that it was in fact implemented as a stylistic preference by the 1770 grammarian Robert Baker, and that fewer and less had been used interchangeably for countable and uncountable nouns for hundreds of years before that. Specifically, it is considered by some as acceptable to use less with countable nouns, especially in informal or colloquial writing and speech.
As long as the sentence does not sound awkward, it is probably safe to do so. However, many still regard the fewer vs. less rule as indisputable, so it is recommended to adhere to the rule for professional, formal, or academic writing.
Quiz

1. Which article can be used with uncountable nouns?





2. What verb form is generally used with uncountable nouns?





3. Which of the following is an uncountable noun?





4. Which of the following is not an uncountable noun?





5. Which of the following sentences is correct?





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