Today I am going to explain everything you might want to know about uncountable nouns.
When learning academic English, students always have a hard time with uncountable nouns, and they can be tricky.
While my explanations apply to all uncountable nouns, the examples will be specific to academic English. So, if you are a professor, instructor, researcher or university student, you will love this guide! You will be able to see how the rules apply to the words you use most often.
Let’s get started!
1. Definition of Countable Nouns, Uncountable Nouns, and Nouns That Are Always Plural
2. Why do we need to know if a noun is countable or uncountable?
List of Uncountable Nouns common in Academic Writing
|Nouns ending in -tion||information|
|Nouns ending in -work or -ware||work|
|Nouns ending in -ing (gerunds)||smoking|
|Nouns representing a collection of things||equipment|
|Materials and food||iron|
Tip 1: You can discover if a noun is uncountable using a dictionary
Some dictionaries do not mention whether a noun is countable or uncountable at all! However, most dictionaries written for learners do… but each in a different way.
Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary
The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary marks a noun as uncountable very clearly, as shown in the figure below.
Lexico Oxford Dictionary Online
The new Oxford dictionary site, called Lexico, identifies uncountable nouns as mass nouns. It also has many sample sentences and even synonyms for the entry. Unfortunately, the definition is a bit shorter and less helpful (at least for this word).
Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary
The Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary shows when a noun is countable or uncountable, but in a much more subtle way, using [C] and [U], respectively. Fortunately, it does provide very detailed information and thorough definitions designed to help English learners. It is my favorite! The figure below shows the entry for a noun that can be both countable and uncountable. I will discuss these double nouns further below.
The Cambridge dictionary separates the entry for hair into two meanings: the hair on your head (uncountable when referring to all the hair growing out of your head), and a single hair, which could be a strand of human hair, or the hairs on an animal. When descussing one human hair, we use the special word strand, not piece. I will discuss the different words used to indicate a part or piece of an uncountable noun in a later section.
3. Can a Noun Be Uncountable and Countable at the Same Time?
If uncountable nouns were always uncountable, they would not be so hard!
When a noun can be both countable and uncountable, it often has a very different meaning in the two cases! Some linguists call these double nouns. The image below shows the entry for force from the Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary.
|The painting was a work of art.||A small amount of work was done on the system.|
|The forces acting on an object…||A developing country must improve the skills of its work force.|
|Some languages consist only of hand movements, not spoken utterances.||Written language is what differentiates man from…|
|The motion was rejected by the Senate.||The motion of the particle around the chamber…|
4. Which Quantifiers Can You Use with Countable and Uncountable Nouns?
It looks or sounds really wrong if you use the wrong quantifier with a noun, and can even lead to misunderstanding. Here are some examples to help you pick the correct quantifier, using study [countable] and research [uncountable] in the same context and with the same meaning.
|Many studies have shown…||Much research has shown…|
|The study links / the studies link vegetarianism to reduced risk for…||The research links vegetarianism to reduced risk for…|
|A study has confirmed that…||Research has confirmed that…|
|Few studies attempt to validate…||Not much research attempts to validade…|
|Fewer studies focus on…||Less research focuses on…|
|Some studies report that…|
A study reports that
|Some research reports that…|
|A small number of studies have been done on…||A small amount of research has been done on…|
Tip 2: You can find out if a noun is uncountable by searching on its quantifiers
Since some words can be countable and uncountable in different contexts, you need to know if the noun you want to use is uncountable in your sentence. If you are writing an academic article, you have already collected and read some papers in your area. Simply search them to find the noun and see if the quantifiers fall in the countable or uncountable columns in the table above.
If you are trying to improve your English, and not writing a text right now, you can search the articles you are reading in your field for the words much and less, and note down which nouns follow them.
Warning! Most published articles are not written by native speakers, and are not edited before publication. Their research findings may be reliable, but their English choices might not be. So, if you have 20 articles in your area to study, pick only those with authors whose names sound American or British.
I know, I know… not everyone born and raised in the US, UK, Canada, etc. has an English-sounding name, myself included! However, if you are choosing some references for correct English usage, pick articles for which all authors have English-sounding names and work in a country where English is the native language. They may make mistakes too, but probably not the same kind a non-native speaker would make.
In the figure below, I imported some academic articles into the free tool AntConc. It allowed me to search them for a word or phrase (in this case much), but with the sentences lined up with the search term in the middle of the screen. I will write about how to use AntConc in another post. For the purpose of finding uncountable nouns, you can just search your files in Microsoft Word or using grep on a Unix/Linux system.
The search results show that the words attention, force and heating are all being used as uncountable nouns in these sentences. Indeed, force was an example in an earlier section — see the figure further above for its dictionary definition. Both heating and attention are purely uncountable. That makes life easier!
5. How Do You Know When to Use a Singular or Plural Verb?
I have great news!
This is the only easy thing about uncountable nouns. Just use the single form of the verb… unless you need a countable version of the concept. If so, see the next section.
6. What Do You Do If You Need a Countable Version of the Noun?
Sometimes you need to specify a number of items of an uncountable noun. We cringe when someone says “two research(es)”, but we can say “two studies” or “two investigations,” or even make research an adjective and say “two research studies” or “two research projects.”
Solution 1: Find a Countable Synonym
The best way to find a synonym (word with the same meaning) in English is to look the word up in a thesaurus. (No, that is not a type of dinosaur, but rather a special kind of dictionary!)
Example 1 – Research
Since we write the word research over and over and over in an academic article, is is nice to have alternatives, especially some that are countable. I looked up research in Roget’s A-Z Thesaurus (via YourDictionary) and the synonyms are shown in the figure below.
Only some of these will fit your context. For example, if you did no experiments, experimentation would not fit your text. You can click on each term in blue to see even more synonyms. I clicked on study and that entry is in the next figure.
I have found that each field or subfield has its favorite synonyms for research. I would not expect to see reflection in a scientific text, but it would be common in education or the humanities.
Example 2 – Work
Another example is the word work, which has different meanings and can be countable and uncountable. Let’s look at a concrete sentence so the meaning is clear:
This time, I will search in Thesaurus.com. The results are displayed below.
As you can see from the image, there are horizontal tabs with one tab for each meaning. On a single tab, the words marked in dark orange are the most formal words (appropriate for academic writing). The words marked in light orange are less formal, and the words marked in yellow are even less formal or slang.
Example equivalent sentences would be:
The other synonyms would sound strange in this sentence. The synonyms all have slightly different shades of meaning or are used in different contexts. Before using an unfamiliar word as a synonym, look it up in a good dictionary and read the examples to make sure it is appropriate.
Solution 2: Use Another Noun to Specify a Part of the Uncountable Noun
Most people know how to ask for “a piece of cake.” Cake is delicious! Most cakes are large and you eat only a piece. (Like many foods, cake can be uncountable (usually for a large cake), and countable (usually for tea cakes or cupcakes). Many other uncountable nouns use “piece” as a way to specify a smaller part of the whole.
Examples: a piece of…
|A piece of advice||A piece of fabric|
|A piece of clothing||A piece of hardware|
|A piece of data||A piece of information|
|A piece of debris||A piece of land|
|A piece of evidence||A piece of legislation|
|A piece of equipment||A piece of metal|
Examples: a strand of…
|A strand of hair||A strand of fiber|
|A strand of wire/twine/string||A strand of DNA|
|An item of clothing||a news item, an item of news|
|A kernel of corn||A grain of rice/sand|
I hope you found this information helpful!
Did I miss anything? I would love to hear from you.
Let me know if there was something you didn’t understand by leaving a comment below right now.
Which example or section in this post was the most helpful? Tell me by leaving a comment below or share this post on social media.