Some nouns express a substance when uncountable and an object associated with that substance when countable
THE IMPORTANCE OF NOUN COUNTABILITY
English nouns are commonly classified as either “proper”, “countable” or “uncountable”. The reason is that each of these groups follows slightly different grammar rules (see 47. Article Errors with Proper Nouns and 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”). Learners of English have to know which group each noun belongs to in order to avoid grammar mistakes.
Unfortunately, it is not always easy to decide whether a noun is countable or uncountable. English coursebooks usually suggest that a noun’s meaning is a clue – that “countable” nouns stand for things that can be counted or lack a fixed shape. This is true to some extent, but does not help with a very large number of nouns representing ideas whose ability to be counted or seen as a shape is very subjective, appearing different to different people (see 14. Noun Countability Clues 1).
In this blog, I am suggesting an alternative kind of meaning that can indicate which grammar rules a particular noun has to follow. This is the meaning the noun has when you know it has two different uses, one countable and one uncountable. My aim is to provide some general countable meanings against which new double-use nouns can be compared. Here I wish to consider the fourth of four major countable noun meanings (for the others, see Noun Countability Clues 1, 2 and 3).
DEFINITION OF A SUBSTANCE LOCATION
A substance location is identifiable when the same noun can mean either a recognised visible object or something that the object is wholly or partly made of. Take, for example, the noun GLASS. Sometimes it means the recognised transparent vessel we drink water or wine from, sometimes the transparent brittle substance that such vessels are made of. It is the first of these meanings that we can call the “substance location”, the second the “substance”.
Note that “recognised” objects are normally more than just a sample of the substance – there is a world of difference between a glass drinking vessel and just some glass by itself. To talk about samples we usually need to combine the substance name with a sample-defining noun like piece or lump, e.g. a piece/lump of glass. For more on this kind of expression, see 180. Nouns that Count the Uncountable.
It is generally the case that nouns like GLASS refer to a substance location when they have a countable form (a glass) and to a substance when they are uncountable (glass). This allows us to formulate the following general rule: nouns able to express either a substance location or the substance itself do so respectively in their countable and uncountable forms.
Substance locations are not always easy to distinguish from other countable meanings found in nouns with variable countability. They differ from subtypes of a substance, like a fuel (subtype of the substance fuel), in being specific objects rather than class names (for more on this difference, see 162. The Language of Classification). Nor are substance locations the same as activity locations, such as a carriage, where the corresponding uncountable form expresses an action of some kind rather than a component substance (carriage means “carrying”).
MORE EXAMPLES OF SUBSTANCE LOCATION NOUNS
Substance location nouns are the type of noun with variable countability that is especially likely to be encountered in elementary English courses. However, there are also many that are not so elementary. In the rest of this post I first offer a list of probably familiar substance nouns that can be used countably to mean a substance location, and then I present examples of a more challenging kind. The reader is invited to identify (with a dictionary if necessary) the exact meaning of each example when it is used countably, for instance after a(n).
Nouns able to Express a Substance Location or the Substance itself
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.
Note that the countable form of nylon in this list is normally in the plural: nylons (= women’s long stockings).
The above-mentioned difference between a substance location and a subtype is well illustrated by the countable noun a stone. As a substance location it 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, a wood as a substance location is a small group of trees standing close together (or a golf club whose lower end is wooden); while as a subtype it is one of various kinds of wood in the world, such as oak, mahogany or willow. A coffee in the substance location sense is a cup or glass full of coffee, while in the subtype sense is a category of coffee like arabica or rustica. And a sugar as a substance location is the small amount that sweetens a tea or a coffee, but as a subtype it is a kind of sugar, e.g. glucose. Double meanings like this seem to be quite common among substance location nouns. Others with one are underlined in the list above.
It may be thought from 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).
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 be a component of something else. Not all abstract nouns are like this: idea and extent are countable, and sale is an action not a component. An example of a substance-like abstract noun is the word value.
The usefulness of recognising abstract nouns with a substance-like meaning is that, like concrete substance nouns, many can change their meaning into a location one through being used countably. 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 located. 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.
Abstract Nouns Resembling Concrete Substance Location Nouns
appeal, behaviour, crime, content, damage, disaster, disease, disgrace, disturbance, effort, error, experience, fortune, grammar, hate, height, history, hope, law, length, love, mass, pain, power, presence, promise, rage, speed, strength, talk, time, value, velocity, vice, weakness, weight, width, youth.
Some of these, just like some of the concrete nouns above, can when countable mean a subtype as well as a substance location. This is true, for example, of a crime. Saying that somebody committed numerous crimes could mean the types of crime were numerous or the individual ones were. Nouns like crime are underlined above.
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.