180. Nouns that Count the Uncountable

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Surprisingly many uncountable nouns can be linked by of to a countable partner for greater flexibility

DEFINITION AND IMPORTANCE

The kind of noun that this post is about tends to be first met very early on by learners of English – perhaps in their first lessons on the concept of “uncountable” nouns. The words in question are not themselves “uncountable”, but are often combined with such nouns in order to overcome the restrictions of uncountability. Typical combinations, with the countable nouns underlined, are a loaf of bread, a piece of furniture and a round of applause.

Perhaps the most obvious problem for uncountable nouns is preceding number words, which usually need a following noun to be plural (see 204. Grammatical Agreement). Uncountable nouns cannot be plural – combinations like *six breads are not usually possible. Also problematic – and probably more frequent – are singular words that combine only with countable nouns, such as one, a(n) or each (see 169. “All”, “Each” and “Every”).

Countable partner nouns are the main way of solving such problems (though alternatives are sometimes necessary – see below). They meet the countability requirements themselves and then link to the uncountable main noun with of. Here is an used with the uncountable noun mail:

(a) If an ITEM of mail is wrongly-addressed, return it to the sender.

Like most elementary topics, the countable partners of uncountable nouns turn out to be much more complex than is suggested by the lessons where they are first presented. Moreover, I personally have never seen any follow-up lessons that seek to build on the basic concept and present a wider variety of the words in question. It is this that I am aiming to do here.

In particular, I wish to include countable nouns that typically accompany uncountable ones of an abstract kind, a category that tends to be overlooked, for understandable reasons, in elementary courses, but which is of especial importance in professional writing. I will also review various other ways of “making the uncountable countable”.

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THE MEANING OF “UNCOUNTABLE”

As a preliminary, it will be useful to appreciate what exactly “uncountable” means. The idea of “inability to be counted” is actually rather misleading, since there are many nouns – particularly abstract ones – about which a clear judgement cannot be made, so that different people would categorise them differently. Better than defining “uncountable” nouns in terms of their meaning is to do so according to their grammatical properties. There are two key ones: inability to be plural and inability to be singular after a(n) (or any of the words like it that are illustrated above).

Unfortunately, this definition begs the question of how we can know whether a noun can be plural or used after a(n). The answer is that we cannot reliably work it out just by looking at the word or considering its meaning – we must instead observe its use or consult a dictionary. However, meaning, despite its unreliability, can allow some fairly good guesses. For advice on this within these pages, see 14. Noun Countability Clues 1.

The importance of knowing a noun’s countability is that it determines some of its grammatical use. For example, countable nouns cannot normally be used in the singular without any other word before them, while uncountable ones have the restrictions mentioned above. For a detailed consideration of these differences, see 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”.

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COUNTABLE PARTNERS OF UNCOUNTABLE NOUNS

There is a surprisingly wide range of countable nouns that can combine with an uncountable one in the way mentioned above. In many cases, the combinations are examples of “collocation” – the preference of particular words to combine with particular other words, sometimes without regard for meaning (see 16. Ways of Distinguishing Similar Words, #5).

Some uncountable nouns allow only one countable partner, while others allow a choice, the different possibilities often expressing different sizes or quantities. In the following lists, the choice-allowing nouns are underlined.

1. Size/Quantity-Neutral Partner Nouns

WITH CONCRETE UNCOUNTABLE NOUNS

a flash/a bolt (of lightening)

an item (of baggage, clothing, equipment, furniture, jewellery, luggage, news)

a length (of rope, string, wood)

a means/form/mode (of identification, transport)

a member (of humanity)

a piece (of any “item” word above, plus bread, cake, chocolate, meatrope, string, wood)

a quantity (of food, medicine, money)

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WITH ABSTRACT UNCOUNTABLE NOUNS

an act (of charity, kindness, misbehaviour, rebellion, sabotage, spite)

an area (of activity, concern, interest)

a bout (of depression, flu, illness, madness, sickness)

a burst (of acceleration, activity, applause, prosperity, speed)

an episode (of experience, flu, illness, treatment)

a feeling (of anger, depression, despair, gratitude, happiness, hope, hopelessness, pleasure, sadness, sympathy)

a fit (of anger, depression, jealousy)

a flash (of anger, inspiration, recognition, sympathy)

an instance (of discrimination, disrespect, generosity, love, poverty, success, suffering, unrest)

an item (of gossip, information, interest, news, vocabulary)

an occurrence (of discrimination, trouble)

an outbreak (of conflict, disease, disorder, trouble, violence)

a piece (of advice, gossip, information, infrastructure, legislation, luck, magic, music, news, poetry, revision, support)

a round (of applause)

a spot (of bother, trouble) (INFORMAL)

a touch (of class, genius, innocence)

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2. Size/Quantity-Showing Nouns

WITH CONCRETE UNCOUNTABLE NOUNS

Some quantity-showing nouns represent precise measurement units like kilo(gram), Examples are:

a kilo (of lamb, flour, rice, sugar)

a litre (of oil, petrol)

a pint (of beer, milk)

Other common combinations include:

a bag (of flour)

a bar (of chocolate, soap)

a bottle (of beer, milk, water)

a can (of beer, lemonade)

a cup (of cocoa, coffee, milk, tea, water)

a cupful (of flour, water)

a dose (of medicine)

a drop (of rain, water, whisky)

a glass (of beer, juice, lemonade, milk, water)

a grain (of rice, sand, sugar)

a jar (of honey, jam)

a loaf (of bread)

a lump (of sugar)

a piece (of food) [= tiny amount, e.g. between one’s teeth]

a pinch (of salt)

a portion (of food) [= allocation within a meal]

a ray (of light)

a sheet (of glass, metal)

a shower (of rain)

a slice (of bread, cake, meat)

a spoonful (of medicine, sugar)

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WITH ABSTRACT UNCOUNTABLE NOUNS

The quantity-showing word here tends to be metaphorical (see 7. Metaphorical Meanings):

a chorus (of approval, criticism, dissent)

a degree (of hope, patience, respect, scepticism, success, uncertainty)

a dose (of optimism, realism, suffering)

a drop (of confidence, decency, wisdom)

a grain (of sense, truth)

a modicum (of patience, politeness, praise, respect, sense, similarity)

a moment (of anger, happiness, hesitation, indecision, inspiration, magic)

an ounce (of determination, sense)

a period (of indecision, rain, time, uncertainty, unrest)

a ray (of hope)

a slice (of luck)

a spell (of rain, uncertainty, unrest)

a sum (of money)

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ALTERNATIVES TO AN “OF” PHRASE

Besides of phrases, English has various other ways of enabling meanings of uncountable nouns to be expressed in a countable way.

1. Uncountable Nouns that can also be Used Countably

Numerous nouns can be used either countably or uncountably in order to express slightly different meanings (for four different types, see the Guinlist posts listed in 14. Noun Countability Clues 1). However, it is only a subgroup of these that can simply replace their uncountable form with the countable one in order to avoid adding a countable noun of the kind described above.

Most seem to belong to the group that mean uncountably a substance and countably an object made from it (see 43. Substance Locations). Take the noun fruit. In generalizations, we would use the uncountable substance word (Monkeys eat fruit), but to describe particular situations (assuming we could not identify the fruit exactly, as in The monkey was eating a mango), we could use the countable a fruit as well as a piece of fruit.

Only a few substance-location nouns have this use. They must mean “the object that people usually associate with the substance”. Thus, fruits are the most obvious objects associated with fruit. Other examples are coffees (= cups of coffee), beers, lights, rocks, ropes and sugars (= spoonfuls of sugar).

An example of the many substance-location nouns that do not meet this requirement is glasses (= “spectacles” or “glass drinking vessels”), which are not the same as pieces of glass or numerous other objects made of glass, such as windows, test tubes or earrings. The situation is similar with irons (= “heavy heatable objects for smoothing clothes”) and woods (= “clumps of trees”).

Similar to substance nouns are what the above-mentioned post calls “abstract substance nouns”, whose countable equivalent again indicates a location (also usually abstract). More of these location nouns seem usable to avoid noun-addition than concrete ones. Examples are a behaviour, a crime (better than an incidence of crime), a communication, a disaster, a disease, an effort, a history, an infection, a narrative, a pain, a shock, a success and a time. We might also include in this category mathematical property nouns like length, speed and volume, which in their countable form often precede of + NUMBER (see 163. Ways of Naming Properties).

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2. Countable Synonyms

Some uncountable nouns have a countable synonym that can replace them. Sometimes this simply names a subtype of the uncountable idea. For example, one could use a flask instead of a piece of equipment, a bus instead of transport and a shower instead of rain.

Sometimes, however, an uncountable noun has a more or less exact countable synonym. A classic example is work, replaceable by either a job (or jobs) or a task (or tasks). Other common pairs are:

accommodationa place to stay

advice a tip

baggage / luggage bags (see 250. Synonym Pairs with Contrasting Grammar, #7).

legislationlaws

money / cash / changecoins / notes

newsstories

poetry a poem

software a program / app

surgeryan operation

travel a journey

vocabulary words.

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3. Paired Nouns without “of”

Instead of an item of vocabulary, it is probably more common to hear a vocabulary item, a phrase where the uncountable noun is more like an adjective (see 38. Nouns Used like Adjectives), and the link between the two nouns is sometimes what I have elsewhere called “material”, sometimes “function” (see 136. Types of Description by Nouns #1 and #12).

Most phrases with item seem to allow this alternative. Also notable are a lightening flash, a transport means, a chocolate bar, a flu bout, a disease outbreak, a sugar lump, a food portion and a rain shower.

There are also some combinations that must always be like this – they do not allow the of alternative. Examples are an email message, a learning point, a punctuation mark, a research project and a training session.

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PRACTICE EXERCISE: COUNTING THE UNCOUNTABLE

The following exercise is offered as a means of strengthening understanding and memorization of words presented above.

Exercise: Suggest as many ways as you can of completing each sentence below with the given uncountable noun meaning. Avoid saying “type(s)”. The first answer is provided as an example; full answers are given later.

1. And now we bring you a fresh … (NEWS)

ANSWER: (a) piece/item of news  (b) news item  (c) story

2. The agencies will be providing three … (SUPPORT) for each flood victim.

3. The government needs to encourage the use of every … (TRANSPORT)

4. This book presents the meanings of numerous … (VOCABULARY)

5. Everyone suffers numerous … (INDECISION) in their life.

6. Many … (SUCCESS) depend on generous investment.

7. Few … (SOFTWARE) are completely trouble-free.

8. Even a small … (INFRASTRUCTURE) can greatly increase efficiency.

9. Every … (*HOMEWORK) must be relevant to the course.

10. The computer will highlight each missing … (PUNCTUATION) in your work.

11. Anthropologists frequently classify every … (BEHAVIOUR) they observe.

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Answers

2(a) pieces / forms of support.

3. (a) form/means/type of transport (b) transport means.

4.(a) items of vocabulary (b) vocabulary items (c) words.

5. (a) moments of indecision.

6. (a) instances of success (b) successes.

7. (a) pieces/items of software (b) software items (c) apps/programs.

8. (a) piece of infrastructure.

9. (a) piece of homework (b) homework task.

10. (a) punctuation mark.

11. (a) episode/instance of behaviour (b) behaviour episode (c) behaviour

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