Recognizing and using uncountable nouns
Uncountable nouns, also known as mass nouns or noncount nouns, refer to a mass of something or an abstract concept that can’t be counted (except with a unit of measurement). In contrast, countable nouns can be counted as individual items.
The main rules to remember for uncountable nouns are that they cannot be pluralized, and that they never take indefinite articles (a or an).
|Type of noun||Examples|
|Abstract concepts and physical phenomena||research, advice, information, knowledge, money, logic, gravity, acceleration, pollution, feedback, traffic, radiation, biomass, lightning|
|Substances, materials and foods||air, water, blood, algae, mud, grass, seaweed, graphite, clay, quartz, rice, flour, meat|
|Elements, chemicals and gases||helium, iron, copper, hydrochloric acid, calcium carbonate, carbon monoxide, methane|
|Disciplines and fields||biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, geography, psychology, economics, aquaculture, trigonometry|
Countable or uncountable?
Some nouns in English, like those in the table above, are always (or nearly always) uncountable. Many other nouns, however, can be countable or uncountable depending on the context.
To identify whether a noun is countable or uncountable in a particular context, consider whether you are referring to a single tangible item, entity or type of something, or if you are describing a general mass or idea of something.
|Type of noun||Uncountable||Countable||Other examples|
|Abstract concepts||He rarely feels fear.||A fear of spiders is known as arachnophobia.||Concepts can often be countable or uncountable: weight, love, courage, strength, time, beauty, pressure, vision, business.|
|Substances, materials and phenomena||Houseplants need the optimum amount of light to thrive.||She saw a light at the end of the tunnel.||Many nouns referring to substances are also used to refer to individual items or types of the substance in question: bone, skin, light, sound, solid, liquid, gas, plastic, acid, alkali.|
|Types of something||Fish is an excellent source of protein.||Coral reefs are home to a huge variety of fishes.||Many uncountables, including food, drink, and other substances, can become countable when referring to a specific type of the noun in question: a Chilean wine, soft cheeses, toxic gases.|
|Drinks||Java produces excellent coffee.||I had two coffees this morning.||Liquids are usually uncountable, but when referring to a single drink they are often colloquially used as countables: a beer, a tea, a water, a coke.|
Are uncountable nouns singular or plural?
Uncountable nouns should be treated as singular, and thus should always be used with singular verbs to ensure correct subject-verb agreement.
- Knowledges are power.
- Knowledge are power.
- Knowledge is power.
Using articles with uncountable nouns
Singular countable nouns generally require an article or other determiner (e.g. the interview, a participant, my hypothesis). Uncountable nouns, in contrast, can usually stand alone without an article.
Because uncountable nouns can’t be counted as a single item, indefinite articles (a or an) should never be used with them.
- The admissions office can provide an advice about arranging accommodation.
- The admissions office can provide advice about arranging accommodation.
The definite article the can be used when you are referring to a particular instance or specific mass of an uncountable noun.
- All living things require water to survive.
- We wanted to swim but the water was too cold.
Numbers and amounts
Many uncountable nouns are associated with words that break them up into countable units. This is helpful when you want to refer to a single or numbered instance or unit.
- A piece of advice.
- A head of broccoli.
- A bolt of lightning.
- Ten items of feedback.
Finding the correct term to describe amounts can be tricky. Many terms that describe amount (e.g. some, a lot of and most) can be used with both uncountable and countable nouns (although note that these terms are often too vague to use in academic writing).
- Uncountable: Some vegetation has started to grow over the study site.
- Countable: Some chickens have also been spotted in the area.
- Uncountable: After 5 minutes most of the calcium carbonate should be dissolved.
- Countable: Most of the chemicals are not easy to obtain.
However, there are certain terms that can only be used with either uncountable or countable nouns. Make sure to choose correctly between less/fewer, much/many, and amount/number.
|Less||Isolated parts of the ocean contain less pollution.||Fewer||Isolated parts of the ocean contain fewer pollutants.|
|Much||Too much money has been spent on this project.||Many||Too many dollars have been spent on this project.|
|Amount of||We discovered a significant amount of green algae in the lake.||Number of||We discovered a significant number of microorganisms in the lake.|
“Research” and “data”
In academic writing, research and data are two uncountable nouns that are notoriously difficult to use correctly.
Never add s to pluralise research or data. (Note that the word researches is only correct when used as the third-person singular of the verb to research.)
- We review researches about the financial crisis of 2007.
- We review research about the financial crisis of 2007.
- The experiments produced a large amount of datas.
- The experiments produced a large amount of data.
Always use research as a singular noun.
- Research are lacking in this area.
- Research is lacking in this area.
Data, however, can be used as a singular or plural noun.
- Data was collected through semi-structured interviews.
- Data were collected through semi-structured interviews.