Chapter 1-2-11: Non-Countable Nouns
A non-countable noun (also known as a mass noun, noncount noun, uncountable noun, uncount noun) is a noun which does not have a plural form, and which refers to something that you could (or would) not usually count. A non-countable noun always takes a singular verb in a sentence. Non-countable nouns are similar to collective nouns and are the opposite of countable nouns.
People learning English as a second language often have trouble knowing when and when not to use articles. Often, this is because the learner does not know whether the noun was countable (and whether the countable known is plural or singular) or uncountable. It is important to know the difference between count versus non-count nouns.
The following table summarize nicely when—and which—articles to use with non-countable nouns:
Although it's not a definitive rule, most non-countable nouns seem to be somehow connected to the following concepts:
liquids (coffee, oil, water)
abstract ideas (mental concepts that generally exist only in your mind and cannot be noted by the five senses; for example, beauty, deceit, and parenthood)
grains and powders (rice, sand, barley)
natural phenomena (rain, sunshine, weather)
states of being (extroversion, ignorance, childhood)
emotions or feelings (anger, grief, love)
gas (air, helium, oxygen)
⚠ Careful: some nouns can be both countable and non-countable nouns because they have multiple meanings. For example, take the word "chicken." When referring to the animal it can be countable. When referring to the meat, it is not:
The chickens died yesterday because of the intense heat. Three chickens survived. A chicken in the henhouse was unharmed.
Chicken is healthy to eat. But, cooks should always wash their hands after working with chicken.
TIP: a learners dictionary will clarify whether a noun is countable, non-countable, or both.
The highlighted words in the following sentences are non-countable nouns. Observe the article that precedes—or the verb that follows—the non-countable noun in these examples:
Joseph Priestly discovered oxygen.
The word "oxygen" cannot normally be made plural.
Oxygen is essential to human life.
Since "oxygen" is a non-countable noun, it takes the singular verb "is" rather than the plural verb "are."
We decided to sell the furniture rather than take it with us when we moved.
You cannot make the noun "furniture" plural. It also can't have a quantity of "1," so you cannot use the article "a" before this noun.
The furniture is heaped in the middle of the room.
Since "furniture" is a non-countable noun, it takes a singular verb, "is heaped."
The crew spread the gravel over the roadbed.
You cannot make the non-countable noun "gravel" plural.
Gravel is more expensive than I thought.
Since "gravel" is a non-countable noun, it takes the singular verb form "is."
Some nouns can be both countable and uncountable. For example…
There are two dark hairs on the crime scene. (countable)
Her hair looks great! (uncountable)
How to Apply Units of Measure to Quantify Non-Count Nouns
People cannot "count" uncountable nouns, but they can certainly "measure" them.
Although it may seem obvious when a grammar text notes that people cannot "count" non-count nouns, it is not always obvious in practice. For example:
Observe how the word "of" is sandwiched between the measurement and the non-count noun. Also observe that it is the form of measurement, not the non-count noun, that takes the plural form.
There are some websites that can help you on the topic of non-count nouns and how to actually "count" them or pluralize them. Check out the reference cards at the bottom of this page.
Click on the caron icon (˅) to the right if you would like to see examples of non-count nouns being quantified.
"How much sugar do we have?" John asked.
Jane looked around the kitchen. "We have a lot of sugar," she replied.
John scratched his head. "Can you be any more precise than that?"
"We have exactly three bowls of sugar left." Jane sighed. "Is that precise enough for you?"
As usual, Mike arrived late for the wine tasting event. He spotted his friends standing beside a sommelier and moved over to join them.
"Glad you could join us," Gary said. There was a soft drip of sarcasm in his voice.
"Better late than never. I wouldn't miss this for anything. Wine is the nectar of the gods."
Sue giggled. "Your knowledge of mythology astounds me. I thought ambrosia was the nectar of the gods."
Mike reached for a bottle of wine. "What are we drinking today, folks?"
Now it was the sommelier's turn to speak. "We actually have some wine and some beer today."
Sue moved her glass around in a circular motion. "I decided to have a glass of wine. It's excellent."
Gary snickered. "Just be sure not to drink too much wine."
"What does it matter?" Mike pondered aloud. "We're walking home."
"Which would you like?" the sommelier inquired.
"I think I'll start with some beer. I might have a bit of wine, later."
The sommelier gestured to a variety of glasses of different shapes and sizes. "How much beer would you like?"
"I think I'll have a pint of your finest beer, please."
"That would be our red from a micro-brewery in the eastern part of the province."
"Sounds good to me."
Sue watched as the sommelier poured the beer into a glass beer stein. "Cheese goes well with wine, but I don't know about beer."
Mike grunted. "A little bit of cheese with beer never hurt anyone," he said as he tossed a piece of marbled cheese in his mouth.
"I would rather think that bread goes well with beer," Greg mused.
"Great idea," Mike exclaimed. "Do we have any slices of bread here?"
The sommelier brought out a basket of bread from under the counter. Four slices of rye bread were surrounded by eight pats of butter. "Personally," he said, "I prefer a bar of chocolate with my wine. Chocolate, or even cocoa, pairs well with a lot of wines. All you need is a tablet of cocoa to bring out the flavour in a Cabernet Sauvignon."
"Not me," Greg disagreed as he rubbed his stomach, "I can only eat so much chocolate before I gain weight."
"Surely you won't gain a lot of weight from just eating one piece of chocolate!" Mike quipped.
"Chocolate, like butter, tastes wonderful. But, moderation is key."
Mike examined his own stomach. "I think I could do with a little moderation, myself."