Can we count it?
countable and uncountable nouns

Getting used to countable and uncountable nouns can be tricky if you don’t have them in your first language(s). In English, if we can count it, we always say if there is one thing or more.

Many English nouns can be either countable or uncountable depending on the situation. So, the important thing with countable and uncountable nouns is to understand what English speakers imagine when either is used.

Easily countable

There are some things that are easy to count. We use a or an or add an s.

Here is an apple.
We use a or an for one thing.

an apple - one thing: we can count it

Here are two apples.
We add an s for more than one thing.

two apples are easy to count

...but not always countable

However, we can’t always count apple. Once it is cut it is hard to imagine how many apples. We simply say it is apple (without an or s). If we want to count it we can easily count the slices.

Here is some apple.

some apple - how many? We don't know exactly, it can be hard to count once it is cut.

Hard to count

There are some things we usually can’t count. When we imagine wine there are many things we can imagine. Wine comes in many sizes so we can’t usually count it. We say generally what it is.

This is wine.
(a glass of wine)

a glass of wine - we count the number of glasses

This is wine.
(a bottle of wine)

a bottle of wine - we count the number of bottles

This is wine.
(a barrel of wine)

a barrel of wine - we count the number of barrels

...but easy to count in some situations

A red wine: We can count it. We know they want one glass of red wine because of the situation.

Two red wines: We can count the wines. There are two kinds we can choose from.

Here are two simple sentences:

I like bananas.

I like watermelon.

Why do we say: “I like bananas” (with an s), but “I like watermelon” (without an s)?

I like bananas.
I imagine taking one banana and eating it. Then another. I eat bananas. (It is easy to count the number of bananas.)

bananas we eat - they are easy to count. There are three.

I like watermelon.
I imagine taking some watermelon (slices) and eating it. Then another. I eat watermelon. (It isn’t easy to count the number of watermelons.)

watermelon - it is not easy to count how many watermelons it is.

I like chickens.
I imagine whole chickens. (the birds)

three chickens (the birds): They are countable

I like chicken.
I imagine part of the chicken. (the part I eat!)

some chicken (the food) - uncountable

Practice

What do you imagine?

The answers above are the most common, and what you will typically find in a textbook. But none of the answers are actually incorrect. Some are just a little strange.

If someone said it, what would you imagine?

Key Point

Make a good connection between the words and your thoughts.

Truly understand what the words mean.

There’s egg in the fridge

Saying “There are eggs in the fridge” is very common (we can count how many eggs there are).

But if I say “There is egg in the fridge” is it grammatically incorrect? No. It is a perfectly fine grammatical sentence. So what does it mean?

I’ve asked several native speakers and they say they imagine either:

  • broken egg: It is no longer a whole egg, just mess that has to be cleaned up.
  • cooked egg: An unknown number of eggs that has been mixed up and cooked.

There are milks or juices in the fridge

If you do a Google image search, you’ll see that sometimes people use “milks” to refer to different kinds of milk. Like the wine example above. “Milks” is not incorrect, but it is much more common to say “milk”.

Juice and juices are both quite common. People say “juice” for the liquid in general, and say “juices” when talking about different kinds. “Juice” seems a little more common and is the standard textbook answer.

There’s grape or strawberry in the fridge

This is similar to the egg/eggs. It sounds like a mess that needs to be cleaned up.

There are cheeses in the fridge

This is fine too. We often say “cheeses” when referring to different kinds of cheese. It is common to see “three cheeses” or “four cheeses” on restaurant menus. But the standard is “cheese” which is probably more suitable when talking about your fridge at home.

There are lambs in the fridge

The animals? I’ve never had them in my fridge… but I suppose it is possible.

What about countable / uncountable noun tables?

Some learners are told to “just remember” when to use countable and uncountable nouns. Learners are often tables showing which nouns should be countable and which ones should be uncountable. These can be useful, as long as learners understand the concept first.

The thing is that many nouns can be used as either count or non-count nouns. But as grammar study is often for testing, learners are traditionally encouraged to remember an association (which they can be tested on) rather than interpret the meaning.

In its introduction to count and non-count nouns, the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (page 334) states:

“Many nouns can be used with a count or non-count interpretation.”

And the authors, Huddleston and Pullum give the example of “chocolate”:

“Would you like another chocolate?”
“Would you like some more chocolate?”

Huddleston and Pullum go on to say (page 335):

“There are, certainly, some nouns, such as piece, which have no established non-count use, and others such as crockery…which have no established count use. These are simply the limiting cases; the dual use of chocolate is not remotely exceptional but is representative of an extremely widespread phenomenon.”  (emphasis mine)

I’ve always found this strange. Comprehensive grammar books focus on the interpretation, but this information is rarely passed on to learners. For learners to become better communicators, they need to interpret the words of a language to understand meaning (including other parts of the language such as prepositions and tenses).

So, we have the traditional approach which focuses on which nouns are usually countable and which nouns are usually uncountable, or we can focus on the interpretation of countable and uncountable nouns. Both perspectives are valid, and it depends on the goals of the learner.

I hope this gives you insight and helps you make sense of how English speakers use nouns.