43. Countable Noun Meanings 4: Substance Locations

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Glass

Some nouns express a substance when uncountable and an object associated with that substance when countable

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SUBSTANCES AND THEIR LOCATIONS

Some English nouns are “countable”, some are “uncountable”, and many are both. Other parts of this blog have argued that these terms are less to do with the meanings of nouns than their ability to be made plural or be used without an article (see, for example, 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”). Unfortunately, these are abilities that cannot be decided for sure just by looking at a noun or understanding its meaning, so that discovering the countability of individual nouns is quite a major task. However, meaning is not a completely useless guide. One area where it can indicate countability is nouns that can be either countable or uncountable, with a different meaning in each case.

The variable meanings of nouns in English that have both a countable and an uncountable use have already featured in three other posts within this blog (see Countable Noun Meanings 1, 2 and 3). However, none of these consider the most basic kind of such nouns, which students of English tend to meet first when learning about variable countability. This is nouns that are uncountably a substance and countably a visible object in which the substance is somehow involved.

Take, for example, the noun GLASS. Uncountably (glass) it is the transparent brittle substance that windows and bottles are made out of, while countably (a glass) it is an object made of glass that we drink water or wine from. The countable form can be called a “substance location” because the substance (glass) is located within it.

Substance locations need to be distinguished from other countable meanings that exist alongside uncountable ones. They are not subtypes of a general substance, as a fuel is of the substance fuel (see 23. Countable Noun Meanings 3), because they use that substance rather than forming a division of it. Nor are substance locations the same as activity locations (19. Countable Noun Meanings 2), such as a carriage, where the corresponding uncountable form expresses an action of some kind (carriage means “the action of carrying”). 

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EXAMPLES OF NOUNS THAT MEAN EITHER A SUBSTANCE OR A SUBSTANCE LOCATION

Some of the most common substance nouns that can be used countably to mean a substance location are listed below. The reader is invited to identify (with a dictionary if necessary) the exact meaning of each one when it is used countably, for example after a(n).

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Substance Nouns whose Countable Forms Express a Substance Location

beer (and other alcoholic drinks), breakfast, brick, cake, carpet, chicken, cloth, cloud, coffee, copper, desert, distance, dress, drink, egg, fish, fruit, glass, iron, leather, light, marble, nylon, oak (and some other trees), orange (and most other fruits and vegetables), ocean, omelette, paper, pudding, rock, room, rubber, sea, sky, soda, sound, space, stone, string, sugar, tea, tissue, treasure, wood.

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The above-mentioned difference between a substance location and a subtype is especially well illustrated by the countable words a stone and a wood, which can have either meaning. As a substance location, a stone is a pebble – a small, roundish object made out of any kind of stone – while as a subtype it refers to a particular one of many different chemical substances that people would recognise as stone, such as marble, malachite or limestone. In the same way, as a substance location a wood is a small group of trees standing close together (or a golf club whose lower end is made out of wood); while as a subtype it refers to one of various kinds of wood in the world, such as oak, mahogany or willow. 

The countable form a sugar is also notable: its subtype meaning (any particular kind of sugar, e.g. glucose) is likely to be the more familiar. As a substance location, it is the spoonful of sugar that many people use to sweeten a tea or a coffee. Note also that the countable form of nylon is normally in the plural: nylons. 

It may be thought from all of this that every uncountable substance noun has a corresponding countable form expressing a substance location. This is not the case, however. Examples of substance nouns that have no countable form (or only one that means a subtype) are aluminium, beef, brass, bread, butter, cotton, flooring, flour, grass, housing, liquid, margarine, meat, milk, oil, paint, rice, salt, soap, steel, water. These exceptions show again how unreliable meanings can be for mastering grammar, whether noun countability, verb transitivity (see 8. Object-Dropping Errors) or preposition choices (see 31. Prepositions after Action Nouns 1).

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ABSTRACT SUBSTANCES AND OBJECTS

Abstract ideas can never be substances – they lack the very properties that substances are defined by. However, many abstract ideas are very like substances – they are expressed by an uncountable noun, and they can exist in varying amounts. Not all abstract nouns are like this: idea and drop are countable, and sale is an action that does not have varying amounts. Substance-like abstract nouns are well illustrated by the word value. 

The value of recognising abstract nouns with a substance-like meaning is that, like substance nouns, many can also be used countably to express the equivalent of a substance location. The uncountable noun value, for example, has a countable partner a value that means “a belief about the value of something” – a meaning where the idea of “value” is still clearly involved. The uncountable word fortune means “luck” or “chance”, but the countable a fortune is a huge amount of money that has (probably) been gained through good luck.

The uncountable damage, which means the broken/lost part of  something, is like nylon in that its countable form damages (= “money awarded by a judge for suffering damage”) is always plural. The same is true of content (= “the inside of something”); its always-plural countable form contents stands for content of a multi-piece nature – the chapters of a book, for example, or matches in a box. Countable meanings of the following are, if not already known, worth discovering in the same way as above.

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Abstract Substance Nouns whose Countable Forms Express a Related Location

appeal, art, content, damage, disease, disgrace, effort, error, experience, fortune, grammar, hate, height, history, hope, law, length, love, mass, pain, power, presence, promise, quality, rage, speed, strength, talk, time, value, velocity, vice, virtue, weakness, weight, width.

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The number of nouns in English that express a substance location does not seem to be great. This feeling is, indeed, the reason why I have not written about substance locations earlier. Yet I have been surprised as I have developed the topic by how many examples I have actually succeeded in finding. Substance locations may after all be a rewarding aspect of English to study.

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6 thoughts on “43. Countable Noun Meanings 4: Substance Locations

    • Hi Jay. I don’t think you can ever add “-s” to “luck”: you always have to say “Good luck”, or “They had some luck”. That’s because “luck” is always uncountable, unlike the nouns listed above, and uncountable nouns by definition cannot be plural. Unfortunately, there is not much in the meaning of “luck” that can help you to know whether it is always uncountable or occasionally uncountable or always countable. You just have to find out somehow and then remember it.

  1. Can ‘understanding’ be countable? We are having a debate about a document that refers to learners’ understandings as in sets of understanding about different learning areas.

    • Hi Lola, and thanks for your question. The answer is yes, ‘understanding’ can be countable as well as uncountable. I think its uncountable meaning is understanding in general, e.g. ‘understanding comes with serious study’; while the countable form refers to understanding of particular things, e.g. ‘Babies do not have an understanding of the demands they make’. The countable meaning looks to me to belong to the category of Subtypes (Blog No. 23). If so, the plural ‘understandings’ and the uncountable ‘understanding’ are fairly interchangeable, with the former just emphasising the existence of different subtypes (cp. “fuel” vs. “fuels”). So I think both forms that you are debating are possible. Hope this helps.

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