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Today we are going to talk about the difference between count and noncount nouns.

Most nouns in English can be counted. Think of the noun shirt, as in, “I bought a shirt.” If you have more than one shirt, you just add “s” to make it plural.

"I bought 10 shirts."

But a shirt is part of a larger category: clothing. You can say “I bought three shirts” but you cannot say, “I bought three clothings.” Clothing is a noncount noun. You cannot use a, an, or a number before a noncount noun.

Grammatically, a noncount noun is always singular, even if it refers to multiple items like furniture, luggage, or equipment.

A count noun in your native language might be a noncount noun in English. For example, the Spanish translation for homework (tarea) is a count noun. But homework is a noncount noun in English. It would sound strange to say, “I had three homeworks.” You could say, “I had a lot of homework.”

You can also could say, “I had three homework assignments.” In this example, homework is used as an adjective. It describes assignment. You can count assignments, but you cannot count homework.

There is no perfect rule to determine if a noun is count or noncount. Fortunately, most noncount nouns fall into a few categories.

Groups of similar things

Noncount nouns often refer to groups of similar objects. Furniture, for example, is a noncount noun. Furniture is a collection of similar countable items like chairs, sofas, tables, shelves, beds and so on.

Luggage is also a noncount noun. You can count bags, packages, and backpacks, but you cannot count luggage. Other noncount nouns that refer to groups of similar things include equipment, food, garbage, mail, money and vocabulary.

Abstractions

Abstract words are noncount. These are words that refer to ideas or qualities instead of physical objects or events. Abstractions are usually things that you cannot see: They only exist in the mind. For example: love, hate, information, news, peace, music and art. There are tens of thousands of abstract words.

Other types of noncount nouns

It is logical that particles -- things that come in very small pieces -- are noncount nouns. It would be difficult to count rice, corn, salt, sugar and dust.

The names of academic fields of study are noncount. Even though physics, economics, and mathematics all end with an s, they are singular noncount nouns. For example, “Physics is difficult.”

Words related to nature and weather are often noncount, such as rain, wind, snow, lightning, fire and air.

Words with count and noncount meaning

A few words can be used as count and noncount nouns. But the meaning changes a little bit. Let’s look at the word glass. As a noncount noun, glass refers to the clear material used to make windows. For example, “The lamp was made of glass.”

As a count noun, glass refers to a drinking container made of glass, as in “Could you bring me a glass of water?”

The plural glasses has two meanings. It could refer to more than one drinking container. “Please wash the glasses.”

Glasses could also refer to spectacles, a pair of lenses used to correct vision. “I have been wearing glasses since I was a teenager.”

Coffee, along with other drinks, has a count and noncount meaning. “Coffee is grown in Colombia” refers to coffee as an agricultural product. “I’ll have a coffee” refers to a single cup of coffee.

Making Noncount Nouns into Count Nouns

There are a few very important words that make it possible to count noncount nouns. Many food words are noncount nouns. But if you are cooking, you need to measure specific amounts of food.

A recipe for cookies might call for “2 cups of sugar, a half-pound of butter, and 1 teaspoon of vanilla." Pound, cup and teaspoon are examples of measure words that you can use to make noncount nouns countable.

One of the most useful of these measure words is piece. You cannot count information but you can count a piece of information. Piece is a very useful word because it can be used with both count and noncount nouns. For example, you can have two pieces of pie or three pieces of information. Listen to this song by Paul Young.

Every time you go away
You take a piece of me with you.

Here is a video of Paul Young singing Everytime You Go Away.

​Some of these measure words have poetic qualities to them, such as: a grain of sand, a speck of dust, a bolt of lightning, a flake of snow, and a breath of air.

Common mistakes

Let’s look at some common mistakes with noncount nouns.

Traffic might seem like a count noun. After all, it refers to a lot of cars. But traffic is a noncount noun in English. Vocabulary, hardware, information, music, and advice are noncount nouns that English learners often confuse for count nouns.

And let us not forget the most important noncount noun of all: grammar. You cannot count grammar. But you can count grammar rules.

I'm Jill Robbins.

I'm Rick Hindman.

Come on come on come on come on and
Take it!
Take another little piece of heart now baby
Break it!
Break another little piece of my heart I know you will
Have a ...
Have another little piece of my heart now baby

Adam Brock wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Jill Robbins and Kathleen Struck were the editors.

Now it’s your turn. If you send us your mailing address in the comments, we will send you a 2016 VOA Calendar. We will not publish your address in the comments, of course. Feel free to add a comment, we will publish that without the address.

Here is Janis Joplin singing Piece of My Heart.

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Words in This Story

noncount nouns - n. a noun (such as “sand” or “butter”) that refers to something that cannot be counted

luggage - n. the bags and suitcases that a person carries when traveling

garbage - n. things that are no longer useful or wanted and that have been thrown out

abstract - adj. relating to or involving general ideas or qualities rather than specific people, objects, or actions

spectacle - n. (old-fashioned) eyeglasses

bolt - n. a bright line of light that appears in the sky during a storm as in a flash of lightning

flake - n. a small, thin piece of something

speck - n. a very small piece or spot

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