DIFFICULTY OF DEFINING COUNTABILITY BY ITS MEANING
Countable nouns are nouns that can be plural and can follow a. Examples are houses/a house, ideas/an idea and days/a day. If a noun cannot be used like this, it is either uncountable (e.g. flour) or a proper noun with a capital letter (e.g. London). We cannot usually say flours/a flour or Londons/a London. Knowing whether or not a noun is countable is important for avoiding grammar mistakes in areas like article usage and agreement.
Some grammar books say that the countability of nouns can be discovered from their meaning. They suggest, for example, that uncountable nouns stand for things that cannot be counted, or things that do not have a fixed shape, like flour and water. This use of meaning does sometimes help us to recognise whether a noun is countable or uncountable, but it has the well-known problem of subjectivity: one person’s idea of what can and cannot be counted is different from another’s. This becomes clear when we compare English with other European languages. Although most English uncountable nouns are also uncountable in other languages, some are not. The uncountable nouns information, access, advice and research are all countable in French, for example. Another well-known problem is the fact that the uncountable noun money for many people stands for one of the most obviously countable things in the world!
ACTIVITY LOCATION: A USEFUL MEANING FOR DEFINING SOME COUNTABLE NOUNS
Yet meaning can be used in another way to help us discover countability. Rather than looking for very wide meanings of all countable or uncountable nouns, it is possible to look for smaller meanings belonging to subgroups of nouns – different meanings for different subgroups. In an earlier post I identified a subgroup of countable nouns that all stand for action outcomes (the actions themselves being expressed by the same nouns used uncountably), and later posts will look at subtypes and substance locations. This post is about another countable meaning of nouns that are both uncountable and countable: activity locations.
An activity is something that happens or is done, and an activity location is where it typically happens. If the same noun can have either kind of meaning, it will usually express the activity meaning with an uncountable use. Consider the double-meaning nouns competition, business, introduction and speech. The activity meaning of the uncountable form may be seen in these examples:
(a) Competition between shopkeepers keeps prices down.
(b) Business is carried out between 9.00 and 17.00 hours.
(c) Introduction of the topic will take about 15 minutes.
(d) Speech distinguishes humans from animals.
The highlighted nouns can be recognised as uncountable because they are in the singular form without any article before them. If, on the other hand, they are used countably, they will represent activity locations, as in these examples:
(e) A football competition is scheduled for next week.
(f) A business known around the world is MacDonalds.
(g) An introduction can be found at the beginning of a report.
(h) A speech well delivered can win many votes.
A competition is an event, often sporting, where people try to perform better than others in order to win prizes. It is a typical place where competition takes place. Not all competition is found in competitions, though. Competition between sellers, for example, is found in the market place. But competitions are a major location of competition. Note that if you replaced competition in (a) with a competition, the sentence would be saying that shopkeepers keep prices down by playing sports against each other! In the same way, a business (an organization devoted to commercial activities) is a major place where business takes place, but is not the only possible place because private individuals can also do business; an introduction is a special kind of text at the start of a longish piece of writing or speech, but not all introduction is done in introductions; and a speech is a formal oral delivery given for such purposes as thanking, persuading or honouring, but not all speech takes place in speeches (think of babies).
FURTHER COUNTABLE NOUNS THAT EXPRESS ACTIVITY LOCATIONS
Some very familiar nouns in English express an activity location in their countable form. Since a simple list of them is not likely to be very interesting, I have chosen to present them through a practice exercise that will perhaps also help the concept to be better understood and the examples to be more firmly memorised. Answers are given at the end.
TASK: Match each countable noun in the following list with the right definition below. Then identify the verb in the definition that means the same as the answer’s corresponding uncountable noun. The first one has been done as an example.
a competition; a television; a sale; an industry; a carriage; an examination; an election; a charity; an education; an equation; a pursuit; an exhibition; a life.
1. An event where each participant is struggling against the others. (= a competition; struggling = competition).
2. The total time that one spends living.
3. A large human-transport vehicle pulled by a separate animal or locomotive.
4. All of the businesses that produce the same thing.
5. An extended time period when we are formally taught about things.
6. An organization dedicated to providing help and support to needy people.
7. A formal way of testing somebody’s knowledge or health.
8. An event where products are displayed for immediate or future purchase.
9. A period when members of a group can choose their leader(s) by voting.
10. An electronic device for receiving and showing pictorial broadcasts.
11. A mathematical formula likening two quantities.
12. A leisure activity that one tries to do often.
13. A period of time when purchasable goods are offered at reduced prices.
2. a life (living = life)
3. a carriage (pulled = carriage)
4. an industry (produce = industry)
5. an education (taught = education)
6. a charity (providing = charity)
7. an examination (testing = examination)
8. an exhibition (displayed = exhibition)
9. an election (election = choose)
10. a television (receiving and showing = television)
11. an equation (likening = equation)
12. a pursuit (do = pursuit)
13. a sale (offered = sale)