Count and Non-Count
An introduction to count and non-count (or mass) nouns in English. Knowing the difference between count and non-count nouns will help you do the following:
In order to make correct choices in using these forms, you must first know how to tell whether a noun is countable or non-countable. The first section of this document will help you do that. The sections that follow discuss the use of the noun plural ending -s, articles, and quantifiers with countable and non-countable nouns as mentioned above in the bulleted list.
Count or Non-count?
The main difference between count and non-count nouns is whether you can count the things they refer to or not.
Count nouns refer to things that exist as separate and distinct individual units. They usually refer to what can be perceived by the senses.
Non-count nouns refer to things that can't be counted because they are thought of as wholes that can't be cut into parts. They often refer to abstractions and occasionally have a collective meaning (for example, furniture).
Here is an illustration that may clarify the concept. Think of the batter from which a cake is made. Before you put the batter into the oven, it can't be divided into parts because it's a thick liquid. Once it has been baked, however, it becomes solid enough to be cut into pieces. Non-count nouns are like cake batter; count nouns are like pieces of cake.
Although such illustrations are of some use, they should not be taken too literally. It is not an accident that batter and cake were chosen to illustrate the mass vs. count distinction: in English batter is a mass noun, and cake is a count noun (but not in all situations: see "An Exception to the Rule" in the next section). Also, different languages divide up their nouns into count and non-count in different ways if they do so at all. Nouns that are countable in English may be non-countable in other languages, including your own, and vice versa. While the issue of countability is too complicated for us to categorize each noun absolutely, we can still describe some general patterns.
If you understand the difference in meaning between count and non-count nouns, you're ready to look at how it helps you make the grammatical choices listed above: 1) pluralizing, 2) using articles, and 3) using quantity words.
From the definitions of mass and count given above you may have already guessed the rule for pluralizing them:
This rule works for all of the nouns in the lists of examples in the first section. Check this rule for yourself before reading further.
An Exception to the Rule
For a number of nouns, the rule needs slight revision. Certain nouns in English belong to both classes: they have both a non-count and a count meaning. Normally the non-count meaning is abstract and general and the count meaning concrete and specific. Compare:
Note: A special case of the use of non-count nouns in a count sense has to do with classification. Sometimes a usually non-count noun can be understood as one item separate and distinct from other items of the same category. The nouns that function in this way often denote foods and beverages: food(s), drink(s), wine(s), bread(s), coffee(s), fruit(s), and so on. Examples:
A recent entry into this class is homework, which at least among some students has the count plural homeworks in addition to its non-count use. (For example, "You're missing three of the homeworks from the first part of the course.") Because this usage is not firmly established and is likely to be considered nonstandard, you should check with your instructor before using it in writing.
A Revision of the Rule
These exceptions require that the rule for pluralizing be revised: count nouns and nouns used in a count sense pluralize; non-count nouns and nouns used in a non-count sense do not.
The two possibilities in each half of the rule require different choices. If you know that a particular noun must be either count or non-count and cannot be both, you need to decide only if it is possible to pluralize the noun. On the other hand, if you know that a particular noun may be used in either a count or non-count sense, then you need to decide whether it is appropriate to pluralize.
To summarize, we may put the rule in a chart, like this:
Nouns and Articles
Choosing which article to use (if any) with a noun is a complex matter because the range of choices depends on whether the noun in question is 1) count or non-count and 2) singular or plural. Both count nouns (whether singular or plural) and non-count nouns take articles.
Combinations of Nouns and Articles
The following chart shows which articles go with which kinds of nouns. Notice that this, that, these, and those have been included because, like the, they mark the noun that they modify as definite, which means that the noun refers 1) to a unique individual or 2) to some person, event, or object known to both the writer and reader from their general knowledge or from what has been previously mentioned in a piece of writing.
The following chart shows which quantity words go with which kinds of nouns. Note that quantity words can be used in combinations such as many more, many fewer, much more, and much less, any of which can be preceded by how to form questions or relative clauses. Negatives like not and no can also be applied to many of these terms.