Some nouns are used uncountably to name a general class and countably to name a subtype within it
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, 19. Noun Countability Clues 2: Activity Locations 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 can seem useful to say that uncountable nouns are those that cannot combine with a number word (two, three etc. – see 180. Nouns that Count the Uncountable), so 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 nouns with variable countability. This post is about one of these four: a “general group” meaning when the noun is uncountable versus a “subtype” meaning of the countable form. The other three meaning differences are the topics of the three similar posts to this that are indicated above.
DEFINITION OF A SUBTYPE
A subtype is a group within a larger group. It resembles all of the other members of the larger group, but it also has differences that separate it from them. In many cases, different words are needed to name a subtype and the group it belongs to (see 162. The Language of Classification). An example of single word that can represent either of these meanings is FUEL. As a group name it represents a variety of energy sources, such as charcoal, wood, kerosene, petrol and diesel. As a subtype name it represents just one of these.
Nouns that can represent a subtype in this way normally do so by being used countably (a fuel), their uncountable use representing the wider group name (fuel). Interestingly, the plural form of their countable use (fuels) is not so different in meaning from the uncountable use: a fuel can be understood as belonging to the group of fuels just as well as to the class of fuel. A suggestion for choosing between the countable plural and uncountable forms is offered below.
Many nouns with the same properties as FUEL tend to represent material substances – a kind of meaning that grammar books often associate just with uncountable nouns. Examples are ACID, FOOD, FRUIT, METAL, PERFUME, PLASTIC, SOIL, STONE, SUGAR and WOOD. Many other nouns have an abstract meaning, e.g. ACTIVITY, COLOUR, DIFFICULTY, CONTROVERSY, FAITH, ILLNESS, INDUSTRY, LANGUAGE, PHILOSOPHY, PLEASURE, QUALITY, SCIENCE, SKILL, TASTE, VIRTUE and WEIGHT. Note, though, that not all abstract nouns express a subtype – and some, like increase, cannot even be uncountable.
The subtype-group contrast has to be distinguished from other contrasts expressed by nouns of variable countability. A business is not a subtype of business but a context where different types of business can take place – it is more than just a type of activity (see 19. Activity Locations). A glass is not a subtype of glass but a concrete object made of one or another glass type, and a fact is not a subtype of fact but a holder of one or another type of fact (see 43. Substance Locations). Note also that expressions like a litre of fuel, which enable uncountable nouns to be used like countable ones, express not subtypes but samples or quantities (see 180. Nouns that Count the Uncountable).
CHOOSING BETWEEN UNCOUNTABLE AND PLURAL
If plural subtype nouns can name a group just like their uncountable equivalent, when is this preferable? The answer, I think, is when the existence of subtypes needs to be emphasised. Consider this:
(a) The price of fuel varies.
Suppose that the cause of price variation was the kind of fuel being used (e.g. petrol being more expensive than kerosene). Then the existence of subtypes would be important, and it would be better to say fuels than fuel. With uncountable fuel (singular without a or the), the reader is more likely to consider other causes of varying prices, such as the provider, because the existence of fuel subtypes would not be highlighted. To take another example:
(b) Fuel is necessary for machines to function.
We could again say fuels are instead of fuel is here, but that would be unusual because the existence of types of fuels is not obviously relevant to the point being made.
SUBTYPE NOUNS THAT CAN EXPRESS OTHER COUNTABLE MEANINGS
A problem with some subtype nouns is that they can express even more meanings than the two being considered here. Stones are not always types of stone (exemplified by marble), but also small, roundish objects made out of any stone type. In this sense, they are “substance locations”. In the same way, powers are not only subtypes of power (e.g. the power to authorise a payment) but also powerful countries, places where power is located; and woods are either subtypes of wood (e.g. mahogany) or places where it is located in the form of trees.
It is also worth noting the exceptional contrast between salt and a salt. We would expect salt to mean almost the same as salts – any substance with the properties of a salt – just as fuel corresponds to fuels. In fact, however, salt means only one kind of salt, sodium chloride (the type you put on your food with pepper). If we want to include all substances similar to it, such as potassium chloride, we can only say salts.
Now here is an exercise offering further practice with nouns that can highlight subtypes by being used countably. Answers are given after it.
PRACTICE EXERCISE: CHOOSING THE RIGHT COUNTABILITY
In the following sentences, which show countable and uncountable meanings of the same word, one space needs a(n) and one does not. Decide where a(n) should go each time (answers below).
1. Cars need ………. fuel, but petrol is ………. expensive fuel.
2. ………. metal that does not behave like ………. metal is mercury.
3. Most people have ………. personal philosophy not based on ………. philosophy.
4. ………. society can change if ………. society within it changes.
5. Care is needed when choosing ………. colour for internal decoration, in order to avoid a clash of ………. colour overall.
6. ………. wood is suitable for furniture-making, and oak is ………. particularly beautiful and durable wood.
ANSWERS: A(n) should go in the first space in 2,3 and 5, and in the second in 1, 4, and 6.