How to tell if a word is countable or uncountable

This is one of my students. And he has a typical grammar problem:

question face

“Help – I don’t know if this word is countable or uncountable!”

Actually, it’s not just one of my students – most of my students get confused over countable and uncountable nouns when they first meet them.

Recognising if a word is countable or uncountable can be tricky. Here are two tips I usually give my students:

Tip 1

If you see a number before a noun, it’s countable:

  • egg = countable
    1 egg ⇒ 2 eggs
  • cat = countable
    1 cat ⇒ 2 cats
  • foot = countable
    1 foot ⇒ 2 feet
  • information = uncountable
    1 information, 2 informations

     

  • music = uncountable
    1 music, 2 musics

     

Tip 2

If you can add ‘s’ or ‘es’ to a noun, it’s countable:

  • chair ⇒ chairs
  • tomato ⇒ tomatoes

Remember – with some countable nouns we do NOT add ‘s’ to form the plural (but that doesn’t mean they’re not countable):

  • 1 child ⇒ 2 children
  • 1 woman ⇒ 2 women
  • 1 man ⇒ 2 men
  • 1 mouse ⇒ 2 mice
  • 1 tooth ⇒ 2 teeth
  • 1 foot ⇒ 2 feet

That’s it

So that’s how we tell if a noun is countable. And when a noun is not countable, it is – of course – UNCOUNTABLE!

That’s all for this post. Have funs fun!

counting man numbers

Stuart is an English teacher and runs the Speakspeak website. He currently lives in Prague and has been teaching for over 20 years. Follow Stuart and contact him by subscribing to his monthly newsletter.

5 Comments

  1. Anonymous - October 20, 2015, 11:36 pm Reply

    Hey Stuart, thanks for the tips. However, you have to consider that those rules don’t apply in language transference. For example, in Brazilian Portuguese (my native language), your first example wouldn’t work, because both information and music are countable words in Portuguese. What I’m saying is, when students think about the first language and try to come up with rules for English, they tend to use the same rules. Therefore, when a student comes and reads the tips you’re sharing, they will definitely think “Why is information/music uncountable?”

    • Deise Palmieri - June 29, 2017, 12:40 pm Reply

      Totally agree with Anonymous.
      One cannot assume that speakers of other languages will reason in the same way as native speakers of English do.
      The rule ‘if there is a quantifier before the noun, it is countable’ is obvious as so is the irregular plural one.
      Surely, this is not the kind of doubt students would have.
      Latin language speakers (Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French and Romanian) are faced with the dilemma described by Anonymous while in the Asian group, at least for the Japanese and Chinese even the quantifier rule would not apply as their nouns do not agree with quantifiers, e.g. 1 pen, 2 pen, many pen, some pen.
      I could deliver a lecture on the topic but suffice to say that it is better to acquaint the students with the concept and have them practice the words as much as possible through good listening and reading texts as well as writing exercises.
      A good tip of Asians, as they are so used to it in their own formal education systems, is to memorise the lists available online and in reliable grammar books.

  2. Sarah Miller - November 23, 2015, 9:45 am Reply

    Thanks for sharing information on Grammar problems!!

  3. Yomimasoy - June 14, 2016, 10:38 pm Reply

    Please, Mr. Anonymous, Mr. Stuart is speaking specifically about the English language.

  4. Angie - July 1, 2016, 1:19 pm Reply

    Hi Stuart, your tips have been very helpful, thanks for that.
    If you allow me to, I would add :
    For many uncountable nouns, it is necessary to use a tool to measure them, such as:
    temperature (thermometer), grains (kg, spoon, etc), liquid (liter, ml, glass, cup, etc), and so on.
    Cheers

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