Some nouns express an activity when uncountable and a particular location of that activity when countable.
DIFFICULTY OF DEFINING COUNTABILITY BY ITS MEANING
Countable nouns are nouns that can be plural and, when singular, must follow an article (a or the) or equivalent. Examples are houses/a house, ideas/an idea and days/a day. If a noun cannot usually be plural, and can stand alone in the singular, it is either uncountable (e.g. flour) or a proper noun with a capital letter, such as London: we cannot usually say flours/a flour or Londons/a London (see 110. Nouns without “the” or “a” and 47. Article Errors with Proper Nouns). Knowing whether or not a noun is countable is important for getting certain grammar choices right, for example whether or not to add an article, and whether to make the noun singular or plural (see 12. Singular and Plural Verb Choices).
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 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.
Other posts within this blog show how countable nouns can stand for “action outcomes”, the actions themselves being expressed by the same nouns used uncountably (see 14. Countable Noun Meanings 1), for subtypes (23. Countable Noun Meanings 3), and for “substance locations” (43. Countable Noun Meanings 4). This post is about a countable meaning of uncountable/countable nouns that I call activity location.
An activity is another name for an action – 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 (see 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”). They can be recognised as activities because they can usually be replaced by a verb with -ing, e.g. competing, doing business (see 14. Action Outcomes). Their value in English is considered in the Guinlist post 131. Uses of “Action” Nouns. Also relevant are 31. Prepositions after Action Nouns 1 and 49, Prepositions after Action Nouns 2.
If, on the other hand, these nouns 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).
PRACTICE EXERCISE: FURTHER NOUNS EXPRESSING 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.
EXERCISE: Match each countable noun in the following list with the right definition below. Then identify the verb in the definition that corresponds to the uncountable use of the noun in question. The first one has been done as an example.
a competition; a television; a sale; an industry; a carriage; a treatment; an examination; an election; a charity; an education; an equation; a pursuit; an exhibition; a life; a departure.
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 unusual behaviour or situation caused by a move away from normal practice.
9. An event where products are displayed for immediate or future purchase.
10. A period when members of a group can choose their leader(s) by voting.
11. An electronic device for receiving and showing pictorial broadcasts.
12. A mathematical formula likening two quantities.
13. A leisure activity that one tries to do often.
14. A period of time when purchasable goods are offered at reduced prices.
15. A procedure or medicine that addresses suffering.
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. a departure (move away = departure)
9. an exhibition (displayed = exhibition)
10. an election (election = choose)
11. a television (receiving and showing = television)
12. an equation (likening = equation)
13. a pursuit (do = pursuit)
14. a sale (offered = sale)
15. a treatment (addresses = treatment)