Some nouns express an action when they are uncountable and the result of the action when countable
THE DIFFICULTY OF DECIDING NOUN COUNTABILITY
Being able to recognise whether nouns are “countable” or “uncountable” is fundamental for using them correctly (see 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”). Noun countability is thus a common topic in elementary English courses. However, it is also an aspect of English that continues to trouble even very proficient users, which is why it is the topic here. This is the third of four Guinlist posts about it. The others are 19. Noun Countability Clues 2: Activity Locations, 23. Noun Countability Clues 3: Subtypes and 43. Noun Countability Clues 4: Substance Locations.
Most readers will know that the terms “countable” and “uncountable” refer not to what nouns mean but to what they do. They tell us not about the ability or otherwise of the thing expressed by the noun to “be counted”, but rather about the grammar rules that the noun must follow. Only “countable” nouns, for example, can be made plural. Only “uncountable” nouns can be singular without an article. “Uncountable” nouns can follow all but not each or every (see 169. “All”, “Each” and “Every”); while singular “countable” nouns cannot follow enough. See also 81. Tricky Word Contrasts 2, #9.
The reason for calling these two types of noun “countable” and “uncountable” is that this can seem a useful means of recognising which nouns are which: many countable nouns are obviously able to be counted, and many uncountable ones are obviously not. The problem, however, is that ability to be counted is not so obvious in a great number of nouns. Some uncountable nouns, like money, represent an obviously countable idea; others, like accommodation, represent ideas whose ability to be counted seems different to different people.
No matter how “ability to be counted” is defined, the problem remains. It so happens that uncountable nouns cannot combine with words we use to count (two, three etc. – see 180. Nouns for Counting the Uncountable). Therefore, it is tempting to say that the countability of an individual noun can be discovered by placing it after such a word and seeing if the combination sounds natural. The problem with this, of course, is that for it to work, learners must already know whether or not a noun is countable. If they do not, an impossible combination like *two accommodations may not seem unnatural at all, leading the uncountable noun to be judged countable.
Further evidence of the subjectivity of “ability to be counted” is provided by the existence of some uncountable nouns in English that are countable in French, a language with a similar way of classifying nouns. Examples are access, advice, information and research. Moreover, there are some English nouns that speakers of languages with no countability distinction at all typically judge incorrectly (e.g. *luggages, *punctuations).
So what better way is there of determining countability in English? As with the transitivity of verbs (see 113. Verbs that cannot be Passive), the surest way is to find out from a dictionary. Failing that, however, a more sophisticated look could perhaps be given to the kind of meaning possessed by the noun. Ability to be counted can on occasion be helpful, and there is also some value in the common assertion that many uncountable nouns like flour and water represent a “mass” of something, with no fixed shape, rather than something discrete.
There is another possibility too, which is not usually highlighted in grammar books. A very large number of nouns are sometimes countable and sometimes uncountable, depending on their meaning, and the difference between the two meanings rarely has anything to do with ability to be counted or with shape. It is not always the same kind of difference, but some kinds can occur across numerous nouns that have variable countability. There thus seems to be value in making these kinds of difference clear and indicating the nouns that possess them.
At least four major kinds of difference seem to be possible between the countable and uncountable meanings of individual nouns. This post is about one of these four: an “action” meaning when the noun is uncountable versus an “action outcome” meaning of the countable form. The other three meaning differences are the topics of the three similar posts to this that are indicated above.
ACTIONS AND ACTION OUTCOMES
A large number of nouns express an action when they are uncountable and an action outcome when countable. Take creation. The action meaning may be illustrated as follows:
(a) Creation of new styles is a priority for fashion designers.
A good indication that creation here is expressing an action is that it (and the following of) can be replaced by the gerund creating (see 70. Gerunds). The fact that it is uncountable is shown by its use in the singular form without any other word in front of it (see 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”).
On the other hand, the action-outcome meaning might be illustrated like this:
(b) The designer was showing off one of her creations.
Creations here is not expressing an action: it cannot be replaced by creating. Rather, it refers to something remaining after the action, in other words its outcome. The fact that it is countable is clear from the plural -s ending.
Many other nouns express an action when uncountable and an action outcome otherwise. Possession, for example, means “taking ownership” (or “having ownership”) in its uncountable form, but “something owned” when countable. Uncountable injury means “the creation of physical damage”, while the countable equivalent just means “physical damage”.
Nouns meaning either an action or an action outcome are usually derived from verbs. Examples are:
VERB DERIVED NOUN
These nouns are typically made by adding a characteristic suffix: -tion, -sion, -age, -y, -ing, -ment, -ence/-ance, -al, or nothing at all (for more on some of these, see 172. Multi-Use Suffixes and 41. Unexpected Vowels in Derived Words). The value of using nouns rather than verbs to express actions is considered in this blog in the posts 39. “Decide” or “Make a Decision” and 131. Uses of “Action” Nouns.
One danger to be aware of in using meaning in this way to decide countability is the occasional existence of exceptions. Some nouns with the above suffixes, such as discrimination, storage and emergence, have only an uncountable use and action meaning (for more on the last, see 157. Tricky Word Contrasts 5, #3). The outcome of storage is expressed by the different noun a store. Many other nouns, like carriage, do have both an action and a non-action meaning depending on their countability – but the non-action meaning is not an action outcome. Such nouns are the topic of 19. Activity Locations.
In a few cases, moreover, the two meanings of “action” and “action outcome” do not correspond to uncountable and countable usage. Motivation, for example, is always uncountable, regardless of whether it means the creation of that emotion or the emotion itself. On the other hand, increase and decrease and many of their synonyms (for a list, see 115. Surveying Numerical Data) are always countable. Such exceptions can easily lead to grammar errors (see 10. Words with Unexpected Grammar 1).
PRACTICE EXERCISES (ACTION OUTCOMES)
The first of the two exercises below aims to develop familiarity with nouns expressing action outcomes. The second is about identifying the correct noun meaning in a text.
Here are some more nouns derived from verbs. They nearly all have both an action and an outcome meaning. Can you find one among them which usually has only the action meaning?
ADAPTATION, DISCOVERY, INTRODUCTION, GROWTH, MEASUREMENT, INJURY, SUPPORT, STATEMENT, ASSISTANCE, IMPLICATION, RECEIPT, LOSS, CHOICE, SALE, PURCHASE.
The exceptional noun here is assistance (= the action of assisting). We cannot usually say *an assistance.
This exercise is taken from my book Grammar Practice for Professional Writing. You have to compare the two CAPITALISED nouns in each sentence pair below, and choose the sentence where the noun stands for an action (answers below).
1. (a) The RECEIPT for goods must be kept.
(b) RECEIPT of goods must be recorded.
2. (a) Creatures can survive in a new environment through ADAPTATION.
(b) Creatures acquire ADAPTATIONS in order to survive in a new environment.
3. (a) Try to speak without REFERENCE to your notes.
(b) A job application usually needs to include a REFERENCE.
4. (a) Airlines should be informed about LOSS of luggage.
(b) If there is a LOSS in the accounts, it should be visible.
5. (a) SUCCESS in business will lead to wealth.
(b) Abba were A SUCCESS in music because of their harmonies.
6. (a) Costs may prevent any DISCOVERY from being marketed.
(b) Costs may prevent any DISCOVERY.
ANSWERS: 1(b) – note the different prepositions, of showing the action; 2(a); 3(a); 4(a); 5(a); 6(b).