Countable Nouns

What Are Countable Nouns?

A countable noun is a noun with both a singular and a plural form (e.g., dog/dogs, pie/pies). A non-countable noun is a noun without a plural form (e.g., oxygen, patience).

Table of Contents

  • Examples of Countable Nouns
  • Examples of Non-countable Nouns
  • More about Countable and Non-countable Nouns
  • Some Nouns Can Be Countable and Non-Countable
  • Some Interesting Countable Nouns
  • Why Countable Nouns Are Important
  • Test Time!
countable nouns examples

Examples of Countable Nouns

Here are some examples of countable nouns:
Singular FormPlural Form

Examples of Non-countable Nouns

Non-countable nouns don't have a plural form. They usually fall into one of the following categories:
Conceptbravery, honesty, intelligence
Activityhomework, playing, reading
Foodbread, butter, milk
Gasair, helium, smoke
Liquidpetrol, water, wine
Materialchalk, cloth, concrete
Item clothing, furniture, luggage
Natural Phenomenongravity, humidity, sunshine
Particlesdust, flour, salt

More about Countable and Non-countable Nouns

Only a countable noun can be preceded by a number or a/an.
  • There are three faithful friends: an old wife, an old dog, and ready money. (Founding Father Benjamin Franklin)
  • (Friends, wife, and dog must all be countable because they are preceded by a number or "an." You can't say "two monies" or "a money," so money must be a non-countable noun. Clearly, money can be counted. Remember that we're talking about the grammatical qualities of the noun money, not physical notes and coins.)
Only a countable noun can be preceded by many, several, or fewer (these are determiners used with plurals). Similarly, only a non-countable noun can be preceded by much and less (these are the determiners used with singular concepts).
  • You can learn many things from children – how much patience you have, for instance. (Writer Franklin Jones)
  • (Things is countable. Patience is non-countable.)

Some Nouns Can Be Countable and Non-Countable

Be aware that some nouns can be non-countable in one context but countable in another. This happens most commonly with nouns that fall into the food and liquid categories of non-countable nouns.
  • Do we have much coffee left? I need a coffee in the morning.
  • (Here, the first coffee is a non-countable noun (note it is preceded with much), but the second is a countable noun (note it is preceded by a).)
The nouns wine and cheese are commonly seen in non-countable and countable forms.
  • Apparently, Israel is famous for its baby cheeses.
  • Most works of art, like most wines, ought to be consumed in the district of their fabrication. (French philosopher Simone Weil)
So, it can start getting complicated. The easiest way to determine whether a noun is countable or non-countable is to have a go at pluralizing it or putting a or an in front. If you can't, you're looking at a non-countable noun.

Some Interesting Countable Nouns

Here are some interesting countable nouns:
Singular FormPlural Form
octopusoctopuses (not octopi)
  • Octopuses is the best option. (It was the original English plural of octopus, a word that derives from Greek.)
  • Octopodes is the Greek plural. (But we're speaking English.)
  • Octopi would be the Latin plural if octopus were Latin, which it isn't.
(The plural of mongoose is mongooses, and the plural of moose is the same, moose.)
sister-in-law sisters-in-law
(With such compound nouns, the principal word is pluralized.)
low lifelow lifes
(It's not low lives. It just isn't.)
ninja ninjas or shinobi
(Ninjas is the best option, but you could use shinobi if you wanted to impress someone who understands the "on" and "kun" readings of Japanese characters. Ninja is a back-formed singular noun from the plural shinobi. They sound completely different because ninja is read using "on" while shinobi is read using "kun.")

Why Countable Nouns Are Important

There are three noteworthy issues related to countable and non-countable nouns.

(Issue 1) Use fewer with plurals and less with non-countable nouns.

Use fewer when referring to people or things in the plural (e.g., soldiers, lawyers, dogs, pies, clouds).
  • A low voter turnout is an indication of fewer people going to the polls. correct tick (Politician Dan Quayle)
  • One merit of poetry few will deny: it says more and in fewer words than prose. correct tick (French writer Voltaire)
  • Our perfect companions never have fewer than four feet. correct tick (French novelist Sidonie Gabrielle Colette)
  • (Here, feet is the plural of a foot with toes. If it referred to the distance, then less than should have been used. There's more on this below.)
There's a quirk. Use less than (as opposed to fewer than) with numbers used with times and measurements.
  • Unemployed? You can get a great job in less than three months. How? Learn to program. correct tick (Author Tucker Max)
  • Butterflies cannot fly if their body temperature is less than 86 degrees. correct tick
Use less with non-countable nouns (e.g., money, smoke, time, furniture, snow).
  • All of this talk of recession offends me. I am delighted that bankers have less money. correct tick(Actor Chris O'Dowd)
  • It takes less time to do a thing right than to explain why you did it wrong. correct tick (US poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)
It has to be said that these rules are blurring. Few people would raise an eyebrow at less being used with a plural noun, and even fewer would challenge less being used with a number that doesn't quantify a date or a measurement. For now though, especially in written work, stick to the rules.

(Issue 2) Be careful with "number of," "amount of," and "quantity of."

Writers are sometimes unsure whether to use "number of," "amount of," or "quantity of." Let's start with the easy one, "number of."

Number Of. "Number of" is used with plural (and therefore countable) nouns.
  • The grand aim of all science is to cover the greatest number of empirical facts by logical deduction from the smallest number of hypotheses or axioms. correct tick (Physicist Albert Einstein)
  • (The words facts, hypotheses, and axioms are all plural nouns.)
  • The first [US] census in 1790 asked just six questions: the name of the head of the household, the number of free white males older than 16, the number of free white males younger than 16, the number of free white females, the number of other free persons, and the number of slaves. correct tick (Author Tom Palmer)
  • (The words males, females, persons, and slaves are all plural nouns.)
Mistakes with "number of" are rare.

Amount Of. "Amount of" is used with non-countable nouns. It is particularly well suited to concepts that are not easily measured.
  • He holds a certain amount of disdain towards her. correct tick
  • (Disdain is a non-countable noun, and it's not easily measured.)
  • The one thing I regret is that my work required an enormous amount of travel. correct tick (Astronaut Neil Armstrong)
  • (Travel is a non-countable noun, and it's not easily measured.)
  • No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong. correct tick (Theoretical physicist Albert Einstein)
  • (Experimentation is a non-countable noun, and it's not easily measured.)
The next example is wrong.
  • The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It is simply washing one's clean linen in public. wrong cross (Playwright Oscar Wilde)
  • (Women is plural. It's a countable noun. This should be The number of women.)
Quantity Of. "Quantity of" is used with countable and non-countable nouns. It fits particularly well with concepts that can be measured (especially inanimate ones).
  • Greatness is an unusual quantity of a usual quality grafted upon a common man. correct tick (US politician William Allen White)
  • (Quality is a countable noun. A quality is measurable and it's inanimate.)
Unlike "amount of" and "number of," the expression "quantity of" carries a connotation of accuracy.
  • When women and men can shed an equal quantity of tears in public, that's when we'll have equal power. correct tick (US ambassador Madeleine Kunin)
  • (Tears is a countable noun. Even though tears are difficult to count or measure, quantity of works well here because of the connotation of accuracy.)
  • The strength and power of a country depends absolutely on the quantity of good men and women in it. correct tick (Victorian art critic John Ruskin)
  • (Quantity of works well here because of the connotation of accuracy. Somewhat ironically, quantity of puts more focus on the number than number of.)
Let's keep examining this idea that "quantity of" is used with something measurable. The term "amount of sleep" is far more common than "quantity of sleep" because we tend to talk about the quality of sleep, which is a difficult thing to measure.
  • Those who succeed seem to need a stupefying amount of sleep. correct tick (Actor Quentin Crisp)
However, some do quantify sleep by measuring it in hours.
  • Lifestyle factors such as work schedules and stress affect the quantity of your sleep. correct tick
  • (This line is from the National Sleep Foundation, which talks a lot about hours of sleep.)
Too complicated? If you're still unsure whether to "use amount of" or "quantity of" because you can't decide whether your singular, inanimate concept is measurable or not, then you might be able to avoid the issue by forcing a plural and rewording.
QuestionMethod 1 for forcing a pluralMethod 2 for forcing a plural
Precede your word with "[a countable noun] + of"Use your word as an adjective to a countable noun.
"a large amount of bread" or "a large quantity of bread"a large number of loaves of breada large number of bread loaves
"a small amount of sugar" or "a small quantity of sugar"a few cubes of sugara few sugar cubes

(Issue 3) If you precede your noun with a term like "a lot of" or "a pound of," check you've aligned your verb.

Expressing quantity with a non-countable noun is typically done by preceding it with an inexact expression (e.g., some, a lot of, much, a bit of) or an exact measurement (e.g., a spoonful of, two kilograms of, an hour of, three pinches of). When using an expression with "of" in (e.g., a bit of, an hour of), the word before "of" becomes the head word, not the non-countable noun.
  • Two bags of cheese has been left outside. wrong cross
  • (This is wrong. Bags is the head word. It should be have not has.)
  • A box of the cheeses have been left outside. wrong cross
  • (This is wrong. It should be has because box is singular.)
So, when using an expression with the format "A of B," remember that A is the head word. This means the expression is singular if A is singular but plural if A is plural. It doesn't matter one jot to the verb whether B is singular or plural...ordinarily.

I say "ordinarily" because there are some quirky ones. When using the expression "a lot of B," "half of B," "the majority of B," or "a percentage of B," the expression is singular if B is singular but plural if B is plural.
  • A lot of cheese has been left outside. correct tick
  • A lot of cheeses have been left outside. correct tick
This is covered more in subject-verb agreement and prepositional phrases.

Key Points

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.