Count nouns are the most common kinds of nouns, describing anything with a definite or individual shape. For example, you can identify or touch a cup. It has a definite and individual shape that is different from, say, the table or the knife. However, you can not identify or touch a coffee. Coffee is a noncount noun. And in order to make it individual or definite, it must be contained by something. We’ll look at this rule soon. Right now you must understand that most count nouns have a definite or individual shape.
However, there are some count nouns that have no shape because they are abstract concepts or ideas. Units of measurement and a finite number of abstract ideas can be definite and individual. For example, you could say “one inch,” or “five meters,” and you could say “an idea” or “five projects.” Once again, although these are not concrete objects, that is things you can touch, they can be definite and individual. Here is a short list of common count nouns.
names of persons, animals, and things that are distinct
one friend three friends one child three children
one teacher two teachers one rat four rats
one tourist three tourists one dog two dogs
one pencil five pencils one bird five birds
groups or classifications
one family five families one religion two religions
one class two classes one region five region
one city three cities one group three groups
receptacles and units of measure
one glass five glasses one meter ten meters
one plate two plates one mile twenty miles
one bottle three bottles one ounce five ounces
one box two boxes one liter two liters
abstract ideas and concepts
one idea two ideas one project four projects
one schedule five schedules one notion several notions
one reason three reasons one cause many causes
Although the list is brief, you get the idea. As a general rule, if a noun has a definite and identifiable shape, it is a count noun. Let’s look at the rules for the proper use of these nouns.
(1) can be singular or plural (simply add an “-s” or “-es”).
I have one pencil. I have two pencils.
(2) can take a singular or plural verb (make sure they agree).
This book is interesting. These books are interesting.
(3) can be preceded by a number: one, five, etc.
One student works hard. Five students work hard.
(4) can be preceded by “the,” “a,” and “ an.”
The glass is broken. A glass is broken.
(5) cannot be without an article, number, or expression, if they are singular.
(not) Student works hard. (but) A student works hard.
One student works hard.
The student works hard.
Many students work hard.
(6) can be alone if they are plural.
Students work hard.
Books are interesting.
Although noncount nouns are not as common, you will see many of them on the TOEFL. Noncount nouns are nouns that are not distinct and individual. That is, they need to be contained by something (by a count noun) before they can be counted. As we saw in the introduction to count nouns, we cannot say “two coffees.” Coffee is noncount, so in order to count it, we must add the expression “a cup of...” or “a pound of...”, etc.
Noncount nouns have no definite shape or contain many small parts that are considered as a group. Please notice that abstract concepts are generally noncount (though we saw a few count examples earlier). Let’s look at a list of common noncount nouns.
Foods and Liquids that come in many different shapes
bread a piece of bread a loaf of bread
wine a bottle of wine five glasses of wine
oil a container of oil some oil
coffee a cup of coffee too much coffee
pasta a bowl of pasta four packets of pasta
Natural material, or material to build with
water/ice a glass of water a pool of water
wood a piece of wood ten pieces of wood
sand a bag of sand five pounds of sand
concrete a slab of concrete too much concrete
hydrogen an atom of hydrogen a cluster of hydrogen
paper a piece of paper a notebook of paper
Things that come in different shapes and sizes
luggage a piece of luggage lots of luggage
clothing an item of clothing some clothing
money a piece of money some money
music a piece of music an album of music
advice a piece of advice some advice
teaching a little teaching some teaching
dignity a piece of dignity some dignity
thinking a piece of thinking some thinking
closeness a time of closeness some closeness
Although not a comprehensive list, you get the idea. Again, as a general rule, if a noun does not have a definite and identifiable shape, it is a noncount noun. Let’s look at some rules for the proper use of these nouns.
(1) have only one form.
Time is moving quickly. I haven’t the time.
(2) are always used with a singular verb.
Wine is good for the heart. Sand is made into glass.
(3) cannot normally take “a” or “an.”
(not) A rice is healthy. (but) Rice is healthy.
or Wine is healthy Some rice is healthy.
This rice is healthy.
(4) cannot have a number in front.(not) Five wine is too much. (but) Five glasses of wine is too much.
(5) can be used with “the.”
The wine is good. The water is cold.
Nouns with Count or Noncount Meaning
Yes, it is possible that nouns can be both count and noncount. Remember that the meanings are slightly different. Let’s look at a few.
count meaning noncount meaning
one work, an artistic object work the general idea
a few works of all work
one thought, an individual idea thought the general idea
a few thoughts of all thought
a time, a specific period time the general idea
good times of time
a paper, a report or paper general material
some papers individual document
a wine, some wines a specific wine wine the general idea
(of France) of all wine
a glass, a specific number glass general material
some glasses of containers
one business, a specific number business the general idea
many businesses of businesses of all business
One of the testmaker’s favorite traps for nonnative speakers is to use nouns that are noncount in English, but count in other languages. Nice, isn’t he? These common mistakes can be avoided by learning the following list.
Nouns that are usually noncount in English but count in other languages.
Count or noncount modifier
The main testing point for count and noncount nouns is the modifiers that go with them. Here is an exhaustive list.
a few minutes a little time
(enough minutes) (enough time)
so few minutes so little time
(not enough minutes) (not enough time)
few minutes little time
(a small number of..) (a small amount of...)
many minutes much time
a number of minutes an amount of time
a kind of student a type of homework
some minutes some time
fewer minutes less time