Some nouns express an action when they are uncountable and the result of the action when countable
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. feedback) or a “proper” noun with a capital letter, like London (see 47. Article Errors with Proper Nouns): we cannot usually say feedbacks/a feedback or Londons/a London. The main value of knowing whether or not a noun is countable is that its countability determines whether or not it can be made plural and which article (a, the or “zero”) should be used with it (see 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”).
Some grammar books say that countable and uncountable nouns can be distinguished by their meaning as well as by their grammar. 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 problem 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!
ACTION OUTCOMES: A USEFUL MEANING OF SOME COUNTABLE NOUNS
Yet meaning can be used in another way to help us identify countability. Rather than looking for very wide meanings of all countable or uncountable nouns,we can seek smaller general meanings belonging to subgroups of countable and uncountable nouns. There are some particularly interesting subgroups associated with nouns that have two meanings, one countable and one uncountable. These nouns are of at least four different kinds.
In this post I want to concentrate on nouns that express an action (mostly) when they are uncountable and an action outcome when countable. Other kinds of double-use nouns are considered in the posts 19. Activity Locations, 23. Subtypes and 43. Substance Locations, while an exceptional double use features under 81. Tricky Word Contrasts 2 (item #8).
A good example of a noun meaning either an action or an action outcome is creation. The action meaning may be illustrated as follows:
(a) Creation of new styles is a priority for fashion designers.
There are two clues here to the action meaning. One is that creation of can be replaced by the gerund creating (see 70. Gerunds). The other is that creation is uncountable: singular with no article (see 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”). The first clue would be a help in writing, showing that the noun needed to be uncountable, while the second would assist reading, signalling the action meaning. The value of using nouns rather than verbs to express actions is considered in this blog in the post 131. Uses of “Action” Nouns.
On the other hand, the action-outcome meaning might be illustrated like this:
(b) The designer was showing off one of her creations.
Neither of the above-mentioned tests for action meaning works here. Creations – an obviously countable usage with the plural -s ending – refers not to the action of creating but to something remaining after it, in other words its outcome.
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 suffixes, see 41. Unexpected Vowels in Derived Words and 106. Word-Like Suffixes).
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). 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 the post 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. Describing 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, EMERGENCE, IMPLICATION, RECEIPT, LOSS, CHOICE, SALE, PURCHASE.
The exceptional noun here is emergence (= the action of emerging/coming out). We cannot usually say *an emergence (the word an emergency is a completely different word).
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).