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What is an Uncountable Noun?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 26 October 2016
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An uncountable noun is one of the tricky categories gracing the grammar of the English language. By definition, an uncountable noun is a noun that does not have a plural form and cannot be enumerated without an accompanying standard of measurement. More simply put, they are uncountable because we can’t understand the amount implied without further information. However, as with most rules of English grammar, the exceptions and complications immediately creep in.

The word “milk” is an example of an uncountable noun. It is considered uncountable because it could be used to refer to any amount of milk, from a teaspoon to a truckload, without having a plural form. As the general rule specifies, you must give a standard of measurement, such as glass or ounce, before you can enumerate the amount of milk clearly. For example, you cannot correctly say “I have four milk,” you must say “I have four cartons of milk.”

However, like many sneaky uncountable nouns, there is an exception: if you are speaking of multiple kinds of milk, it can be pluralized, as in “Sheep, cows and goats give different-flavored milks.” This is generally considered a correct usage of the word, even though the noun is usually considered uncountable. If you are going to pluralize an uncountable noun, be certain you are referring to different varieties of one thing rather than multiple quantities of it.

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Uncountable nouns, also called mass nouns, can also be distinguished by their combination with the words “much” and “many.” A countable noun will almost always be used with “many,” as in “I have many dogs.” An uncountable noun is more often found with much, as in “I have too much sugar.” This is also true with the diminishing modifiers “few” or little.” “Few” is usually found in concert with countable nouns, while “little” or “too little” go with mass nouns.

Other indicators that you might be dealing with an uncountable noun are the words “some” and “any,” as these are similarly nonspecific. If you ask for “some toast,” you could be asking for one piece or an entire loaf. With a countable noun, you generally would need to ask for a specific quantity.

To further delight grammarians and confuse everyone else, some nouns can behave as both countable and uncountable nouns depending on the context. The word “thread” for instance, can change its classification depending on the context. You can accurately say “There is too much thread on this spool,” and “I pulled two threads off my sweater.” In the first example, the noun is uncountable, in the second, countable.

For the most part, common sense and a good grasp of the English language will help you understand the difference between count and mass nouns. It is advisable not to go into too much of a panic if you cannot determine whether, and in what circumstances, “beers” is acceptable as a plural. By paying close attention to indicator words, you will likely discover most of the tricky nouns that decide to be uncountable.

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