English grammar is far more complicated than it needs to be. The English language has collected a lot of anachronistic language rules, so many that over time the language regularly breaks its own English grammar rules. Or as we like to say, there are some exceptions to the rule, begging the question,
why have rules if you don’t follow them!
Anachronistic is a word I haven’t used in a while, it means that something is out of its time. You might see a room full of modern furniture and on its own amongst the modern furniture you might see a piece of furniture that is out of place, old-fashioned maybe. Well, that’s a good analogy for some English grammar rules and the English language!
I honestly expected to put together a quick and thorough lesson on uncountable-nouns in no time. However, it was like a can of worms, as soon as I took the lid off the topic it went everywhere, and as often happens with English grammar I remembered all the “Exceptions to the rules” that I, as a native English speaker, have automatically learned, but as a new language learner they might catch you out.
So this English lesson was longer and more complicated than I expected, but I hope I have put together a comprehensive explanation of English uncountable nouns in this English podcast lesson. Listen to the podcast several times to make sure you catch all the exceptions.
Substance Furniture Quantify Accommodation Anachronistic
|Of Uncountable Nouns||6|
|You Can Say||3|
|Help You With||2|
|Quite A Lot||2|
|A Substance Like||2|
|On That Road||2|
Hi I’m Hilary and welcome to this podcast from Adept English. Our podcasts always help you with your English language learning, but they also sometimes help you with the grammar of English – some English grammar rules.
One of the ideas in English grammar which I notice I mention quite a lot in podcasts – and which you will meet quite a lot too – this idea of ‘uncountable nouns’. I mentioned ‘uncountable nouns’ recently for example, in the podcast a couple of weeks ago on sleep. So ‘sleep’ is mostly used as an uncountable noun. But let me be your ‘English grammar guide’ here.
So ‘uncountable nouns’ cannot be used with an ‘a’ in front of them. And the word ‘uncountable’, UNCOUNTABLE means that ‘you cannot count it’. From the verb ‘to count’. If you count items, like biscuits or apples, you could say ‘One apple, two apples, three apples, four apples’.
Biscuits or apples are ‘countable nouns’ – you can say ‘an apple’, ‘a biscuit’ and you can count them and they have a plural form with an S on the end – apples, biscuits. But with ‘uncountable’ nouns, it’s as though they are ‘a substance’ like sugar, flour (FLOUR that you use for baking) or water.
You wouldn’t generally say ‘a sugar’, ‘a flour’ or ‘a water’. I say generally, because there are situations where there are exceptions, where we don’t quite follow the rules – I’ll come to those later. But the examples of uncountable nouns that I give when we meet them in podcasts to illustrate what I mean – I use ‘traffic’, TRAFFIC or ‘custard’, CUSTARD.
The word ‘traffic’ means ‘lots of vehicles on a road’ and ‘custard’ is a milky vanilla sauce that you might eat with your pudding. You’re unlikely to say ‘a custard’ and you would never say ‘a traffic’. The last one would be grammatically incorrect. So although ‘traffic’, TRAFFIC consists of lots of vehicles – it uses the 3rd person singular part of the verb, the ‘he, she, it’ part. So in the present tense for example, you’d say ‘The traffic flows well on that road’ or ‘the traffic stops and starts on that road’.
The examples of uncountable nouns that I’ve given you so far are mostly concrete nouns – things that you can see like traffic or perhaps touch, taste even, in the case of sugar, water, custard, flour.
Food substances in particular are often uncountable nouns. But there are lots of uncountable nouns which are more abstract. ‘Money’, MONEY can mean cash, physical money, coins and notes, but it can also mean the concept, the idea of money.
You can say ‘The money’, ‘some money’, ‘my money’, ‘a little money’, ‘too much money’, ‘money in general’ – you can say all those things. But it’s uncountable, so you can’t say ‘three monies’ or ‘a money’. So it’s as though money is like a substance, like salt or sugar, custard or traffic. Other examples of uncountable nouns would be music, information, furniture, advice, love, health, happiness.
Words for categories of items – like furniture, clothing, luggage, equipment, machinery are all uncountable nouns. And it’s the same for chemical substances – oxygen, nitrogen, potassium - they’re uncountable nouns. It often happens when we describe the weather too – rain, fog, snow, sunshine – all uncountable nouns.
And uncountable nouns take the third person singular, as I said. ‘Music keeps me sane’, ‘Love does sometimes bring happiness’, ‘The furniture is made out of oak’. The only exception here is when the uncountable noun is referencing a group of people – for example ‘The police’. Here you would use the 3rd person plural – ‘The police know where he is’, or ‘The staff are working really hard’.
Sometimes with uncountable nouns – we put another countable noun in front of them, with an ‘of’ in between. So we might say ‘a bag of rice’, ‘a jug of custard’, ‘a piece of music’, ‘three games of tennis’, ‘some words of advice’, ‘a piece of news’. And notice here also – where there’s a plural, be careful that the S is on the end of the countable noun only. An uncountable noun can’t have an S on the end. So it’s ‘three jugs of custard, six pieces of music, two pieces of news, twelve cups of tea’. Does that make sense? In these cases, the S goes onto the end of the countable noun.
Just pausing a moment to remind about our Adept English courses. If you find the podcasts sometimes quite difficult to understand and you would like to understand basic English words better first, then consider buying our Most Common 500 Words Course. It’s a really simple idea, but as far as I know, it’s unique to Adept English!
It’s a course which you listen to and which only uses the most common 500 words. In fact, the new version also has a couple of extra chapters, which use the most common six hundred words, just to help you progress a bit more. It’s well worth it – just to consolidate your language learning and build your confidence.
Back to the subject. So I said that there are some exceptions to the rules for uncountable nouns. What do I mean? Some examples. When children are counting down the days until their birthday, or until they go on holiday, they may say ‘It’s three sleeps’ meaning that it’s three nights, I’ll go to bed three times – and then it will happen. Or sometimes we say to them ‘It’s five sleeps’.
It’s useful to quantify time for children, who may find time and waiting difficult. So this way of using the word ‘sleep’ is as though it’s a countable noun. It’s very informal, but people do say this. If you know it, think of the Leona Lewis song ‘One More Sleep’! Similarly informal, although coffee is a substance and therefore usually an uncountable noun, we might say things like ‘Just let me get a coffee’ – when we mean ‘Just let me get a cup of coffee’.
A photograph of a cup of tea with lots of sugar cubes around it. English grammar and uncountable-nouns in todays English lesson.
You might hear ‘Do you take sugar in your tea?’ ‘Yeah, three sugars please!’ Short for ‘three spoonfuls of sugar, please’. So again, this is very much in informal spoken English only. This use of uncountable nouns as though they’re countable is used in spoken English, where substances like tea, coffee, water, butter are offered in individual portions, individual packets or servings. So you might sit in a cafe and say ‘Two teas, one coffee and a spring water, please”. But in all other contexts, tea, coffee and water are uncountable.
And there are lots of words that can be used in a specific, countable sense – as well as in a more general, unspecific, uncountable sense. Another way of saying that? The same word can be used as a countable noun or as an uncountable noun. And the grammar around it reflects whether it’s being used countably or uncountably. And these are used in informal and in formal English – it’s just that the word is used in a different way, in a different context..
So some examples? ‘My house has thirteen rooms’ – ‘rooms’ there meaning individual, separate rooms, which have walls and a door and a window. Or you might just say ‘There’s a lot of room in my house’ – meaning generally, there’s lots of space.
You could say ‘I took an exam paper that was really difficult’ or ‘Have you got some paper for me to write on?’. So the first is countable, the second is uncountable paper. Or ‘How many times did we go to Greece last year?’ ‘Oh yeah - it was three times’ as opposed to ‘Have you got time for a chat?’, which is uncountable time.
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So you can usually tell from the context whether the noun being used to mean a specific instance – one room, one piece of paper, one time, one occasion? Or whether the word is being used in an uncountable way – ‘time’ as a general concept, something you might have too little of, ‘room’ as a general concept, meaning ‘space’, like [to] ‘make room’ – or paper, as in ‘I like to buy printer paper online because it’s cheaper’.
So the context will usually show you which it is because these words can be used in both ways. ‘Work’, WORK is another. You might use it as an uncountable noun - ‘Work makes me tired’ or ‘That is a lot of work’, or you can use it as a countable noun – ‘the museum had many works of art’.
Shall we finish with some words which can only be used as uncountable nouns – like traffic or custard? So these are words where you would never put an ‘a’ in front of them and you would never put an S on the end to show a plural.
Phew – and I thought ‘uncountable nouns’ was only going to take a couple of sentences to explain! So I hope I’ve helped you sort that one out in your head, the grammar of English uncountable nouns.
If it’s quite a lot of take in, then make sure that you listen a number of times to this podcast. It’ll get easier and clearer each time you listen. And you’ll be working towards perfect English grammar with each listen.
Enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.