Hello! This week on Ask a Teacher, we will answer a question about noncount and mass nouns.
Dear Learning English,
Thank you so much for your excellent programs.
How do we know how to use the singular and plural of some nouns like “effort” vs. “efforts?” Both show in people's writing.
For some nouns, it is very hard to know if they should be used in the singular or plural, like "experience” or "faculty.”
Thank you for your question. These words are in a group called “mass” or “noncount” nouns. These nouns are not counted as individual things.
They present problems even for native speakers of English sometimes. While there are many noncount and mass nouns, we will provide some general rules to help you use them.
Noncount and mass nouns do not have a plural form. For example, sand or milk would be difficult to count. Particles of sand are too small and numerous, and milk is a liquid.
Mass nouns or noncount nouns can describe abstract concepts like “advice.”
In some cases, “faculty” is a collective noun, not a mass noun. Collective nouns describe many individuals who form a group. For example, the “faculty” is made up of individual teachers.
However, if you hear the word “faculties,” it often is describing a person’s powers of the body or mind.
The teacher aimed to develop the students’ faculties of critical thought.
Noncount nouns are always singular. There are no plural forms of noncount nouns.
Sometimes nouns can be both mass and count nouns. Many people use “effort” and “experience” as mass nouns, while describing a concept, but they can become plural when talking about repeating or multiple attempts (efforts) or individual experiences.
Her boss noticed her efforts on the project over the past few weeks. (repeating or multiple attempts)
The vacation package offers many different experiences like snorkeling, swimming in the ocean or hiking in the rainforest.
Another example of a noun that can be a mass or count noun is “paper.”
The teacher collected the students’ final papers. (count noun referring to the students’ individual pieces of writing)
I need to buy some paper for the printer. (mass noun)
Since noncount nouns cannot be counted, numbers are not used with them. We need to add other words if we want to talk about an amount of a noncount noun. We use words like “types,” “slices” or “pieces.”
Kelly always has four types of cheese in her refrigerator.
The teacher handed the student three pieces of paper to take his test on.
I eat two slices of bread in the morning.
Lastly, we do not use the indefinite articles “a” or “an” with noncount or mass nouns. We do use the definite article “the.”
The rising water flooded the town.
Please let us know if these explanations and examples helped you, Lily.
What questions do you have about American English? Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
And that’s Ask a Teacher.
I’m Faith Pirlo.
Faith Pirlo wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.
Words in This Story
faculty – n. the group of teachers in a school or college
abstract – adj. relating to or involving general ideas or qualities rather than specific people, objects, or actions
concept –n. an idea about how something work or what it is
snorkeling – n. the act of swimming underwater with a tube to get air for breathing
type –n. a particular kind or group of things
refrigerator – n. an electric device that keeps food cold
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