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Jeff the English Grammar Guru. Column 2: Non-Count Nouns

Dec 2, 2019

Welcome to the second in a series of English Grammar columns I will be publishing on Cafetalk. Last column we looked at the different rules and some irregularities for creating the plural forms of nouns. But not all nouns take a plural form. Nouns that do not take a plural form are called Uncountable or Non-Count Nouns and they are the subject of this column. 

Most nouns in English are Count Nouns (also referred to as Countable Nouns). For example, the noun chair, as in, “I bought a chair.” and if you have more than one chair, you use the plural form "I bought three chairs." But a chair (along with a desk and a table etc.) is also part of a larger category or group, namely furniture. But you cannot say "I bought three furnitures." because furniture is a Non-Count noun. Instead we can say "I bought some furniture." Clothing is another example, that represents a category or group of similar items or parts, in this case items such as shirts, dresses and shorts etc.

Non-Count nouns also include things we would commonly measure by weight or volume or are made up of parts too tiny and numerous to count such as rice, sand, dust or water. Grammatically, a Non-Count noun is always singular, even if it refers to multiple items like furniture, clothing or jewelry.
You cannot use the articles "a" or "an" or even a number (one, two, there etc.) before a Non-Count noun, nor can you use any of the following determiners or expressions of quantity: each, every, both, a couple of, a few, several, many, a number of, these or those.

However, there are other determiners and expressions of quantity that can be used before Non-Count Nouns such as the following:
some rice
a little rice
any rice
no rice
hardly any rice
much rice
enough rice
a lot of rice
lots of rice
plenty of rice
most rice
all rice

the rice
this rice
that rice

Common types or categories of Non-count nouns

1. Whole categories or groups made up of similar items or parts:
clothing, furniture, equipment, jewelry, luggage, food, fruit, garbage, hardware, junk, machinery, mail, makeup, money, scenery, stuff, traffic etc.
2. Fluids:
water, tea, milk, oil, soup, gasoline, blood etc.
3. Solids:
ice, bread, butter, cheese, meat, gold, iron, silver, glass, paper, wood, cotton, wool etc.
4. Gases:
steam, air, oxygen, nitrogen, smoke, smog, pollution etc.
5. Particles:
rice, chalk, corn, dirt, dust, flour, grass, pepper, salt, sand, sugar, wheat etc.
6. Abstractions - abstract concepts that have no physical form:
beauty, confidence, courage, education, fun, happiness, health, intelligence, knowledge, laughter, luck, music, peace, sleep, truth, wealth, advice, information, news, evidence, time, space, energy, homework, work, grammar, vocabulary etc.
7. Natural Phenomena:
weather, sunshine, dew, fog, hail, humidity, lightening, rain, snow, thunder, wind, darkness, light, electricity, fire, gravity etc.
8. Languages:
Arabic, Chinese, English, French. Japanese, Spanish etc.
9. Fields of Study:
chemistry, engineering, history, literature, mathematics, psychology etc.
10. Recreation:
baseball, soccer, tennis, chess, poker etc.
11. Activities:
driving, studying, swimming, travelling, walking etc.

There are some nouns that can used as either Non-Count or Count nouns, but the meanings are different.
- There are two hairs in my soup. (Count)
- Jody has blonde hair. (Non-Count)
- I opened the curtains to let some light in. (Non-Count)
- There are two lights on in the living room. (Count)

Partitive Structures with Non-Count Nouns
We mentioned previously that you cannot use the articles "a" or "an" or a number (one, two, there etc.) directly before a Non-Count noun. However, we can use an alternative unit of measurement - a measure word to count or quantify Non-Count nouns. For example, we can cannot say "a rice" or "two rices" but we can combine the measure word "bowl" with "of" to say "a bowl of rice" or "two bowls of rice. We call this structure a partitive structure. There are several other measure words we can use, depending on the specific Non-Count noun. Below are several other commonly used Partitive structures:
- a cup of tea
- two items of clothing
- a piece of furniture
- a glass of water
- a teaspoon of sugar
- a game of tennis
- a bottle of milk
- a pinch of salt
- a bolt of lightening

- a piece of information

This is the second of many columns on English Grammar I will be publishing here on Cafetalk in the near future. Feel free to contact me at any time to discuss your English language needs. I teach not only English Grammar but also Business English, English Conversation, Listening and Reading skills, Vocabulary, Preparation for English Tests such as IELTs and can also tailor lessons specifically to your individual needs. I also offer a free introductory consultation to all prospective students, so please get in touch and let me help you achieve your goals in English language learning.

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