When I’m giving IELTS writing corrections, I often tell people that they have made a mistake with an uncountable noun. This is hardly surprising. These can be really tricky to learn. In fact, some nouns that are usually countable can even become uncountable in certain situations!
As such, I want to teach you all about uncountable nouns today. This is a big topic, so it will be a long article, but it is an important part of English grammar that all learners should understand.
What are Uncountable Nouns?
We can divide nouns into two categories: countable and uncountable. Those that are countable can be counted. For example:
- Book (one book, two books, many books)
- Dog (one dog, two dogs, many dogs)
However, some nouns are uncountable. These cannot be counted:
Whenever you learn a new noun, you should check a dictionary to see whether it is countable or not. It should look like this:
Here, you can see the arrow points to the letter C, which means this noun is countable. If it says U, it will be an uncountable noun.
What Types of Nouns are Uncountable?
An uncountable noun is one that cannot be counted and cannot take “a” or “an” before it. There are many examples, including common words like “advice.” You could never say “an advice” or “three advices.” Therefore, it is an uncountable noun.
Here are some categories of uncountable nouns:
- Abstract concepts (Buddhism, communism, spirituality, peace, capitalism, freedom)
- Energy (heat, light, electricity, power, cold, radiation)
- Feelings (love, happiness, sadness, contentment, bliss, hunger)
- Gas (oxygen, carbon dioxide, helium, air, smog)
- Group names for things (furniture, equipment, baggage)
- Liquids (beer, milk, juice, water, whisky, oil)
- States of being (fatigue, sleep, exhaustion, childhood, adulthood)
- Subjects (literature, history, geography, maths, chemistry, biology)
- Weather (rain, sun, snow, sleet, hail, humidity, wind)
As you can see, there are many types of uncountable noun.
Can a Noun be Both Countable and Uncountable?
A word can be both countable and uncountable but, importantly, its meaning changes a little, so it is not exactly the same word. For example:
- She drank some water.
- Can you give me a water?
In the first example, water is used as an uncountable noun. It has no plural form, so we say “some water.” This is by far the most common use.
However, in the second example, it is a countable noun. This is because it refers to “a bottle of water” (ie a countable unit). We sometimes turn uncountable nouns into countable ones when that thing can be divided up into units.
Here’s another example:
- He doesn’t drink beer.
- She ordered two beers.
You can see that it is again used with a liquid substance. We can do the same with “milk” and “juice” and “whisky,” etc. They are uncountable nouns but, when we think of them as individual glasses or bottles, they can be countable as well.
It is not only liquids that this applies to:
- I’m getting my hair cut tomorrow.
- Gross! I found a hair in my soup!
In the first example, we consider all the hairs on someone’s head as a single unit called “hair.” In the second, we consider each individual hair as a countable unit.
How to Use Uncountable Nouns
The most important rule is that uncountable nouns should not be counted. Thus, we cannot use a number in front of them and we do not add “-s” at the end to pluralise them:
- INCORRECT: two informations
- CORRECT: some information
- INCORRECT: five knowledges
- CORRECT: a lot of knowledge
- INCORRECT: ten equipments
- CORRECT: lots of equipment
Likewise, we do not use “a” or “an” before these words:
- INCORRECT: I was hoping to get an advice about my career.
- CORRECT: I was hoping to get some advice about my career.
Instead, we have other phrases we use with uncountable nouns.
Quantity Expressions for Uncountable Nouns
You can see from my examples above that we have a few words that we can use to suggest a quantity in relation to uncountable nouns. There are various words and phrases that can be used:
- lots / a lot of
- a great deal of
- plenty of
- a little
- not much
For negative sentences, we use “any”:
- We don’t have any bread.
- I don’t have any time right now.
Likewise, there are specific expressions that can be used for certain uncountable nouns. For example:
- I’m going to the bakery to buy a loaf of bread.
The word “bread” is uncountable, but actually we can count it by making it into a specific countable unit, a loaf. Example:
- The shop sold twenty-six loaves of bread.
- I’ve got a loaf of bread in the cupboard.
Of course, there are many such words. Here are some more examples:
- A piece of advice
- A bar of chocolate
- Two bottles of water
- A mode of transport
- A piece of equipment
- An item of news
You need to have a good grasp of these common collocations if you want to get a good score for Lexical Resource.
Can you Count Uncountable Nouns?
As we just saw, it is possible to count uncountable nouns if we use certain units to measure them. Of course, not all uncountable nouns can be treated this way, and most of them have unique words or phrases that are used to make them countable.
For example, we can say:
- Lightning can be dangerous.
- He was hit by a bolt of lightning.
In the first example, “lightning” is an idea, a concept. In the second, it is a physical thing that has a real presence. Importantly, the unit “a bolt of” means it is suddenly countable. We could say, for example:
- We counted six bolts of lightning.
Another example is the word “work.” As an uncountable noun, this refers to the idea of work. However, “works” means something different entirely:
- A person should take pride in their work.
- The artist produced ten works during that period.
Is or Are for Uncountable Nouns?
Uncountable nouns are treated as being grammatically singular, so we must keep this in mind when thinking about subject-verb agreement:
- INCORRECT: Your advice are very helpful.
- CORRECT: Your advice is very helpful.
Try to remember this especially when using uncountable nouns that refer to many things, such as “furniture”:
- Her new furniture is really beautiful.
Even though this implies several or many items of furniture, it is still treated as singular.
Asking Questions with Uncountable Nouns
When we ask questions about the quantity of an uncountable noun, we should use “any” or “much”:
- Do you have any beer left?
- Is there much rice in the cupboard?
- Have you heard any information yet?
However, when we offer something, we use “some”:
- Would you like some tea?
- Could I interest you in some coffee?
Common Uncountable Nouns
Here are some common uncountable nouns:
There are many, many more words to learn! I suggest that you make a note of whether a word is countable or uncountable when you learn new vocabulary.
Common Mistakes with Uncountable Nouns
Finally, here are some examples of mistakes I often see people make using uncountable nouns: