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countable or uncountable?

Birthday cake

Bella from Switzerland writes:

Could you please explain countable and uncountable nouns? Cake is uncountable in certain cases but countable when we say:

  • She baked some cakes.

 

Roger Woodham replies:

countable nouns

Countable nouns are the names of separate items which can be counted. They can normally be used with the indefinite article a / an and in the plural with numbers, many, few, some, any:

  • Did you buy a newspaper today? ~ I bought two newspapers, 'The Mirror' and 'The Sun'.
  • Have we got any oranges in the house? ~ We've got some apples but we don't have a single orange.



 

uncountable nouns

Uncountable nouns are the names of materials or collections of other things which in English we regard as masses and not as separate items. Uncountable nouns are not normally used with the indefinite article a / an or in the plural. For example, we cannot say an accommodation or many accommodations. Instead we have to say:

  • Is there very much accommodation for students in this part of town? ~ There is some on the other side of the river, but there's very little around here, I'm afraid.

Note that we need to use much / little with uncountable nouns, many / few with countable nouns and that we use some / any with both countable and uncountable nouns.



 

uncountable nouns: word families

What is a countable noun in your language may be an uncountable noun in English. It may therefore be a good idea to try to learn uncountable nouns in groups connected with the same subject area, e.g.:

TRAVEL: information, travel, traffic, accommodation, money, equipment, luggage, clothes, pyjamas, jeans, trousers, shorts, tights, knickers, pants.

Note that all the uncountable nouns associated with clothes are plural uncountables. They cannot be used in the singular form or with numbers. We cannot say for example a shorts or two shorts. Instead we have to say:

  • Can you lend me a pair of shorts? I've forgotten mine ~ I've got two pairs. Which ones would you like? Those ones or these ones? ~ I'll have those ones.

HOUSEHOLD ITEMS: furniture, bedding, flooring, washing-up liquid, washing powder:

  • What sort of flooring are you going to have in your new house? ~ We thought we'd have vinyl in the kitchen and
    hall and carpet on the stairs and landing.

WEATHER: weather, lightning, thunder, rain, snow, wind, sunshine:

  • Did you have very much snow last winter? ~ There was quite a bit (of snow) higher up in the hills, but down here in the valley we didn't get very much, no.

MATERIALS AND RESOURCES: cotton, wool, fabric, leather, plastic, wood, stone, concrete, oil, gas, coal:

  • Is this shirt made of cotton or nylon? ~ It's 60% cotton and 40% acrylic fabric.

FOOD: sugar, salt, pepper, rice, pasta, spaghetti, flour, butter, bread, soup:

  • Would you like some bread with the soup? ~ Do you have any bread rolls? ~ No. ~ Oh well, I'll have a slice of toast, then.

PROFESSIONAL ENDEAVOUR: work, research, knowledge, intelligence, training, progress, stamina, patience, determination, commitment, reliability, loyalty:

  • Have you done any research on this? ~ No, I haven't, but there was a piece of research that James did last year that might be relevant.



   

uncountable > countable

Note that when we want to transform an uncountable noun into a countable expression, we normally use a partitive structure. We have already had: bread > a slice of bread, snow > a bit of snow, shorts > a pair of shorts, research > a piece of research. Here are some of the most common associated with weather

  • wind > a gust of wind
  • rain > a shower of rain / a drop of rain
  • lightning > a flash of lightning
  • thunder > a clap / a rumble of thunder
  • frost > a touch of frost
  • fog > a patch of fog
  • snow > a flurry of snow / a flake of snow
  • sunshine > a burst of sunshine

BBC weather forecast: There will be a touch of frost in East Anglia and the East Midlands might get a shower or two of rain before the night is out.


 

uncountable or countable

Some nouns, as in your example of cake, Bella, have both countable and uncountable uses with some difference in meaning. Here are some common examples with their respective uses and meanings illustrated. Make sure you know the difference between the uncountable and countable meaning.

Cake

  • Would you like some of my birthday cake? ~ I'll have just a small piece, please.
  • Could you get some cakes for tea? ~ How many shall I get? ~ Well, there are six of us so get about a dozen.

Do you also know the expression a piece of cake? This expression describes something that is very easy to do, even though you might be worried that it will be difficult:

  • If you've been playing the piano for five years, learning to play the organ will be a piece of cake!

Chocolate

  • There were at least ten chocolates in this box last night and now there is only one. Who has eaten them all?
  • Here, have some chocolate. ~ That's a huge bar. I couldn't eat all of it. I'll just break off two pieces.

Pepper

  • For this dish you need two red peppers and a green pepper and a yellow pepper.
  • Would you like some black pepper and some grated cheese on your pasta, sir?

Paper

  • Have you got any paper? I've run out. ~ How much would you like? ~ Could I have three sheets, please?
  • Could you get me an evening paper on your way back from work please?

Glass

  • There's broken glass all over the place. Be careful.
  • A glass of wine, Terry? ~ I've had two glasses already, Norman. I'm driving so not a drop more!

Experience

  • For this job, you need experience of working with animals. She doesn't have this kind of experience.
  • Accompanying Dora on her visits last week was a really useful experience. A useful training opportunity.

Trade

  • Trade with China has increased dramatically over the last five years.
    He's not clever enough for college so he's going to pursue a trade such as carpentry.

Time

  • We've still got a lot of time. The train doesn't leave for another two hours.
  • Have you had a good time, Henry? ~ I've had a wonderful time, Mary, thanks.


   

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