Some nouns express an activity when uncountable and a particular location of that activity 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 14. Noun Countability Clues 1: Action Outcomes, 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 that Count 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 “activity” meaning when the noun is uncountable versus an “activity location” meaning of the countable form. The other three meaning differences are the topics of the three similar posts to this that are indicated above.
ACTIVITY LOCATION: A USEFUL MEANING FOR DEFINING SOME COUNTABLE NOUNS
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 activity; an examination; an election; instructions; 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.
16. Information-giving aimed at ensuring a procedure is carried out correctly.
17. A limited period of specific busy behaviour.
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)
16. instructions (information-giving = instruction)
17. an activity (busy behaviour = activity)