Noun Classes...and Noncount Nouns

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Form & Meaning Groups

Grammar reference books generally point out several important of sub-divisions of English nouns.  These categories are important to us as ESL/EFL teachers for two reasons: (1) They are involved in noun meaning--and in vocabulary teaching.  (2) These different forms have different ways of being used in context--and so in grammar.  For example, choice of an article depends on whether a noun is count singular or count plural or noncount.

This system actually combines two somewhat different systems--the form-based one of common/proper and count/noncount along with the meaning-based abstract/concrete system. 


Form-Based System

This whole system of common/proper and count/noncount is full of important things that our students need to learn to handle.  Here's a tentative list of areas that need to be taught--and you can probably think of other items to add. 

1. How are names formed and used in English?  How are they spelled?  What word order is used?  How can you tell women's names from men's names?  When is the required?  When is the impossible? 

2. What's the difference between a count noun and a noncount noun?  How can you tell if a noun is count or noncount?  Why does it matter--how does knowing the difference matter in making grammatical choices?  Which articles are used with which? 

3. How are plural nouns formed?  Which are regular?  How are the regular endings pronounced?  How are they spelled?  Which are irregular?  How are these irregular noun spelled and pronounced?  Which ones are really important for a student to learn to recognize and to use?

What are Noncount Nouns?

We can find lists of noncount nouns in most ESL/EFL textbooks.  Such lists imply that noun class membership is a constant and that a word is always count or noncount.  Of course, the truth is somewhat more complicated. 


Counting Noncount Nouns & Changing them to Count Nouns

We can use partitive constructions to count noncount nouns:  A glass of wine, a piece of music, and so forth. 

In addition, many nouns that are generally noncount can have count versions--with a subtle change in meaning.  Words like wine and music can refer to the "thing" generally in a noncount form: I like wine and music.  But we can talk about particular instances of these: I had a wine from France for dinner; I like the music of Brazil. 

Here's where the meaning-based categories of abstract and concrete come into play in a way that is important for ESL/EFL teachers because we can organize lessons around these categories.  Generally, abstract noncount nouns (music--and beauty, truth, eduation, freedom, and others) can have a count form for a change in meaning. When we want to refer to a unit of the stuff or an individual, we can move the abstract from the noncount side of the chart to the count side of the chart.  That's how Jefferson could write "We hold these truths to be self-evident."  Or Roosevelt could talk about the "Four Freedoms."  Or I can say about my rose garden in the spring, "There are three beauties out there today." 

This same pattern is also true with many concrete noncount nouns.  These are words like wine--and cheese, tea, coffee, and many others.  These noncount nouns can become count when we refer to "a kind or type of" something or "a unit of something."  They sell many cheeses at the Farmer's Market.  I want a cheese from Italy to go with this pasta dish.

Count vs. Noncount Meaning: Countability in English

Some words commonly have both count and noncount versions--for different meanings: crime, for example.  Or, love.  Or, cake.

Crime doesn't pay.  He committed three different crimes in one evening. 

Love makes the world go round.  She has three loves--song, dance, and English grammar.  His car is the only love in his life.

Cake is a very popular dessert in the U.S.   I like cake.  I bought a cake for the party.  We had several cakes for the celebration. 

Thus, count nouns are used to refer to individual units or instances while noncount nouns refer to a more abstract level of meaning. 

The issue is what grammarians call countability.  Actually, English has a scale of countability for nouns.  In Allan (1980), eight levels of accountability are presented.  He compared nouns like information--mankind--police--book

At one end of his scale are highly abstract nouns like information (that aren't generally used in a count form). 

At the other end are nouns like book (that aren't generally used in a noncount form for an abstract meaning). 

In between are nouns like crime (with both forms possible on a regular basis) or truth (with both forms possible but the noncount more commonly used).

The Importance of Noncount Nouns

Understanding the meaning and use of noncount nouns is a tremendous challenge for ESL/EFL learners and teachers.  The topic is important because of the influence of noncount nouns on article and determiner choice. 

1. Knowing if a noun is count or noncount is central to knowing which article can be used--or if the noun can be used without an article.  Why is a/an or the required with the word appleI bought an apple.  I ate the apple.  Not: *I bought apple.  *I ate apple.

2. Knowing the meaning difference between a count version and a noncount version of the same noun can be important in understanding both spoken and written English.  How are these uses of the word crime different in meaning?  Crime makes people fearful.  Many crimes go unpunished. 

3. Because academic materials are often about concepts rather than instances, noncount nouns are often used.  Look at the following passage from a psychology textbook--the writer uses both the count and the noncount versions of the word behavior. (And an adjective form, too!)

from an undergraduate psychology textbook

Organisms as diverse as humans and squid share many biological processes.  However, their unique behavioral capacities depend on the differences in their physiological makeup.  You and I have a larger repertoire of behaviors than the octopus in large part because we come equipped with a more complex brain and nervous system.  The activity of the human brain is so complex that no computer has ever come close to duplicating it.  Your nervous system contains as many cells busily integrating and relaying information as there are stars in our galaxy.  Whether you are scratching your nose or composing an essay, the activity of those cells underlies what you do.  It is little wonder, then, that many psychologists have dedicated themselves to exploring the biological bases of behavior.

Problems of ESL/EFL Learners with Noncount Nouns

We know that students have trouble selecting the correct article + noun combination for the meanings that they want. 

Sometimes they choose the wrong article:  *I like the music

Sometimes they make a noncount into a count--in a way not generally allowed by English: *My teacher gives us lots of homeworks." 

Sometimes they use count nouns without articles in ways that makes the meaning seem strange--it seems at first as if the writer is trying to make the countable noun into a noncount for a conceptual change--a move away from the countable end of the scale toward a more abstract and noncountable meaning:  *This story tells about relationship between families. 

Knowing if a noun is count or noncount is central to making correct choices for article + noun combinations.  How do you think that students can learn this important distinction?  What would you do to help your students learn to use noncount nouns accurately? 

Please send me your questions and comments at


Allan, K. (1980). Nouns and countability. Language 56:3, 541-567.