Posted by Grant Richardson, 28th November, 2015
A simple but often forgotten grammar rule:
In English, unlike in Chinese, some nouns can be counted (e.g. birds), while others cannot be counted (e.g. air).
Countable nouns have a singular form:
an idea; 1 idea
a thing; 1 thing
and a plural form:
2 ideas, 3 ideas…
2 things, 3 things…
In contrast, uncountable nouns normally do not have a plural form (though, there are exceptions; see below):
For countable nouns, you can use “… many (+ plural form)”
|Countable nouns (e.g. people)||Examples|
|(negative) not many people||There aren’t (so) many people today.|
|(question) how many people||How many people are there?|
|(positive) so many people||There were so many people yesterday.|
|(positive) a lot of people||There were a lot of people yesterday.|
Note that for positive sentences, we normally use a lot of or so many, but we normally don’t just use many.
Other quantifiers for plural nouns are:
plenty of, some, any, a few, several (formal), loads of (informal), stacks of (informal), heaps of (informal)
For uncountable nouns, you can use “… much (+ plural form)”
|Uncountable nouns (e.g. food or breakfast)|
|(negative) not (so) much food||I didn’t eat (so) much food this morning.|
|(question) how much food||How much food did you eat last night?|
|(positive) so much food||I ate so much food last night.|
|(positive) a lot of food||I ate a lot of food last night.|
Note that for positive sentences, we normally use a lot of or so much, but we normally don’t just use much.
Other quantifiers for uncountable nouns are:
plenty of, some, any, a little, loads of (informal), stacks of (informal), heaps of (informal)
For every uncountable noun, there is normally a counter. For example:
I ate a bowl of cereal for breakfast
Quiz: Can you match the following uncountable nouns with the correct counter?
|1||celery||A||a bar of|
|2||chocolate||B||a bottle of|
|3||coffee||C||a bowl of|
|4||Coke||D||a can of|
|5||lettuce||E||a cup of|
|6||pizza||F||a head of|
|7||rice||G||a member of|
|8||sugar||H||a roll of|
|9||staff||I||a slice of|
|10||toilet paper||J||a stick of|
|11||water||K||a teaspoon of|
Some nouns can be used as either uncountable or countable plural. In this case, they don’t need a counter word.
For example, wine can be uncountable (like water) or countable singular (meaning a glass of wine) or plural (meaning glasses of wine):
How much wine did you drink last night?
How many wines did you drink last night? (= How many glasses of wine did you drink?)
Oh, I just had one (wine).
Other nouns which can be used as either countable or uncountable:
beer vs beer(s) (bottle(s) or glasses of beer)
cheese vs cheeses (types of cheese)
fruit vs fruits (types of fruit)
chocolate vs chocolate(s) (in a box of assorted chocolates)