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Countable and uncountable nouns with different meanings
Sausage in bun

Alexandre from Brazil writes:

I have some doubts about uncountable nouns. Music is uncountable, so it is wrong if you use a before music. What is the correct form to use? Is it possible to use a before an adjective with an uncountable noun?

  • I have a beautiful music to show you.

Another example:

  • I'm making a chocolate cake.

Cake is also uncountable, so why is this correct?

K Srinivas from India writes:

Which of the following sentences is correct: Don't music interest you? / Doesn't music interest you?

Roger Woodham replies:
  music

You're quite right, Alexandre. Music is an uncountable or mass noun so we cannot say a music or even a beautiful music. Instead we have to use some or any or, if we want to refer to a single piece of music, we must use a partitive construction such as a piece of:

  • I'm going to play you some music by Chopin.

  • Have you heard this piece of music that he composed in 1826?

  • I don't think I've ever heard any music by Chopin.

Most uncountable nouns, although they refer to mass items or collections of things, take a singular verb:

  • Doesn't music interest you then?

  • The furniture that I saw in the department store was very expensive.

  • The advice you gave me on how to study for the exam was very useful.

Even the names of school subjects and leisure activities as uncountable nouns ending in s are used mostly with singular verbs:

  • Maths is often perceived as a difficult subject, though I would say physics is more demanding.

  • Billiards is an indoor table game and is played with three balls, two white and one red.
 
   

Cake

Unlike music, cake can be used as an uncountable or a countable noun, depending on whether you are thinking of a mass of cake or an individual cake:

  • I'm going to bake a chocolate cake this afternoon and then, when it's ready, you'll be able to have some.

potato / pepper / onion

There are similar differences with other food items, depending on whether you are thinking of them as mass or individual items. Compare the following:

  • Have you got any salt and pepper to put on the dining table?

  • I couldn't decide whether to buy a red pepper or a yellow pepper.

  • Would you like some mashed potato? ~ No thanks, I'll just have a roast potato.

  • Would you like any onion with your hot dog?

  • I'm going to cut up an onion and mix it with the salad.
 
   

paper / glass / cloth / work

Sometimes the meaning changes more radically with use of the countable or uncountable form of the noun. Compare the following:

  • I'm going to buy an evening paper so that I can see what's on tele tonight.

  • Here's some paper for you to draw on.

  • This lampshade is made of paper.

  • I don't need to wear glasses. My eyesight is pretty good.

  • If you have any wine, I'd like a glass of red wine, please.

  • It's better to use kitchen utensils made of glass, not plastic.

  • Have you got a damp cloth? I've split some red wine on the carpet.

  • There was not enough cloth remaining to make a second suit.

  • There was no doubt. It was a masterpiece, a work of art.

  • I don't have any work next week, so, unless I get some, I shall take the week off.
 
   

If you would like more practice more please visit our Message Board in the You, Me and Us part of our website.

     
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