There are some parts of grammar that native speakers just accept and never think about . . . until we start teaching. Today, I’m getting a lesson of my own about nouns that we can count and those that get lumped together—count vs. non-count. The weird thing is that some of them fall into both groups, depending on how you use them.
Count nouns are those about which we can ask “How many . . . ?” The answer is a number. Non-count nouns cannot be change into a plural form, like liquids. Water is water, juice is juice, and salsa is . . . OK, well, salsa is Mexican. . . .
but I heard someone ask for “a water” in a restaurant.
Good point. You’re smart.
Saying “a water” is actually a shortened form of asking for “a glass of water.” Notice the “of” here. Since “of” starts a prepositional phrase, what comes after “of” doesn’t count as the noun. (pun intended) For instance, in “two cups of milk,” the noun is “two cups,” countable and plural. This leads us to non-count nouns.
Whereas count nouns can be lined up next to each other, non-count nouns can’t. Some non-count nouns do have plural forms, like data (singular is datum) or politics (no singular). Concepts, activities (treated like concepts), professional industries, general categories, and other abstractions qualify as non-count . . . except ghosts. (We can run away from them).
OK, so if we can run away from it, it is a count noun . . . except commitment. Commitment is definitely non-count.
Moving on . . .
Collective nouns are typically groups of people or things labeled using one word or term. The word “Parliament,” for example, represents a body of people working together as a single entity. Sports teams and companies fall under this category, too.
When it comes to these groups, there is a difference between American English and British English (otherwise known as “the Queen’s English”). British English uses the plural verb conjugation here, while American English generally uses singular. In England, Parliament are considering new legislation, while in the United States, Congress is doing the same. . . .
but in America, the New York Yankees are losing, right?
Yes. Yes, they are. 🙂
However, New York is losing.
Do you see why? When we say “New York Yankees,” New York is in the adjective position; therefore, it doesn’t count towards the noun. (pun alert)
So earlier, you wrote “. . . ‘Parliament’ represents . . .” because you are an American writer?
Ah, you’re paying attention, but no.
Actually, the noun in that sentence is “word,” a singular count noun. So, a British writer would write that sentence the same way.
Back to non-count nouns in general . . .
Some non-count nouns need words before them refer to individuals or part of the whole.
- members of Congress
- pieces of equipment
- pieces of candy
- sticks of butter
- ears of corn
This brings us back to the type of noun I mentioned in the introduction: food. Well words that “belong to both groups,” pretty much includes food. “Chocolate,” for instance, is a non-count noun . . . a yummy, delicious non-count noun. To make chocolate plural, we need pieces of chocolate or candy bars. (Yes. Yes, we do.)
There’s more to food than chocolate, though, so let’s talk about cooking.
Ingredients demonstrate this concept well. If you have less than one or you have an ingredient in a pile and you can say “some,” then you have a non-count situation. You can say, “I’ll have some chicken,” even though originally there may have been multiple chickens. Salt is non-count noun when it’s an ingredient or an additive to a meal, although we sometimes refer to “grains of salt” (of = preposition) or “salt crystals” (salt = adjective).
What about pineapple? What about strawberries and grapes? Why are they different? Why?
Size matters. If it’s small enough to fit in our mouths without chopping or slicing up, it’s a count noun, like strawberries, grapes, cherries, and peanuts. If it’s too big, we break it down again into two groups. If you want the entire thing, count it—an apple, a peach, etc. If you only want part of it, say “some,” which indicates non-count—some pineapple, some coconut, some watermelon, etc. Many ingredients go into this category, because they get cubed, sliced, or grated (like cheese).
Well, we could go on, but all that talk about food made me hungry. How about you? Good, let’s eat.
Liam Hickey currently teaches ESL with Corporate English in Guadalajara, Mexico. Via Willpower Careers, Liam also works as a career coach, teaching people how to write effective résumés, research companies, interview and negotiate salary, network, and more. His clients also benefit from his ten years of technical writing and consulting experience.