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Count vs. Noncount Nouns

            Before you can form plurals correctly, you need to understand the difference between count and non-count nouns.  Noncount nouns are a large group of “mass” or “collective” nouns that do not make a distinction between singular and plural forms.  Even though these nouns may refer to large quantities of things, they act like singular nouns grammatically:

The following categories of words frequently contain noncount nouns:

Abstractions:  Beauty, revenge, knowledge, progress, poverty  
Example: Ignorance causes poverty.

Liquids and gases: Water, beer, air, gasoline, milk   
Example:  Gas is cheaper than oil.
               Wine is my favorite beverage.

Materials:  Gold, silver, wood, glass, sand. 
Example:  He had a will made of ironGold is more valuable than silver.

Categories of food:  Rice, flour, cheese, salt, yogurt. 
Example:  Bread is the staff of life.
               Meat and cheese are sources of protein.

Languages:  French, English, Korean.  Example: Navajo is a complex language.  Do you speak German?
BUT use “the French,” “the English” when referring to people of a given nationality: 
Example: The French are great lovers of wine.  (Note that this noun is plural.)

Academic fields:  physics, astronomy, music.  
Example:  Philosophy is a difficult subject.
              My brother is majoring in biology.

Sports and games:  tennis, golf, basketball. 
Example:  Do you play chessSoccer is becoming more popular in America.

Weather:  Fog, snow, wind.   
Example:  Severe drought can cause famine.  The city of Buffalo gets more snow than most cities in New York State.

Natural phenomena:  gravity, nuclear energy, magnetism. 
Example: Electricity is a form of energy.   Newton discovered the principles of gravity.

Gerunds (verbal nouns):  running, singing, smoking. 
Example:  Swimming is excellent exercise.  Sleeping during class is not recommended.

Groups of things of varying size and shape: jewelry, garbage, luggage, equipment.
Example: Fine jewelry is expensive.  Trash was thrown everywhere in the room.

If noncount nouns cannot take plural endings, how do you denote a specific number or quantity of noncount nouns?

Use of the definite article “the” with noncount nouns:

As soon as you specify a noncount noun by attaching a defining phrase to it, you must use “the,” just as you would with any other noun.   Note the difference between:

 “Information is a valuable commodity.”  vs
 “The information that you gave me was valuable.”
 
When you are talking about a particular piece of information, as opposed to information in general, a definite article is needed.  Note that even abstract nouns may be used in a specific way, as in:

“The beauty of the night was overwhelming.” or
“The poverty of the old man was tragic.”
 
Use of s with noncount nouns:

Certain noncount nouns, especially foods and liquids, may be used with a plural “s”—just like count nouns—when they refer to many different varieties (e.g. “many poisonous gases,” “various cheeses”).  Note the difference:

“He drank too much wine.”  vs
 “The wines of France are famous.”

(For more information on definite and indefinite articles, see the handout “Definite and Indefinite Articles.”)


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