Distinguishing between countable nouns (unit nouns) and uncountable nouns (mass nouns) can be very difficult. This area is the source of many mistakes.
Unit nouns have two forms, singular and plural: e.g. a chair, chairs.
You can say 1 chair, 2 chairs, 3 chairs etc. This is why unit nouns are also called countable nouns.
Mass nouns only have one form: e.g. furniture, clothes.
So you can’t say 1 furniture, 2 furnitures, 3 furnitures etc. This is why mass nouns are also called uncountable nouns.
Mass nouns cannot be used with a/an.
WRONG: a furniture
Mass nouns are fixed as singular or plural.
RIGHT: furniture, clothes
WRONG: furnitures, a clothe
However, it may be possible to use “a piece of / an item of” for singular and “some” for plural.
RIGHT: a piece of furniture, some furniture / an item of clothing, some clothes
You can use e.g. the furniture for both singular and plural references.
Unit nouns usually refer to one or many separate items or units. E.g. a chair/chairs, an office/offices, a client/clients, etc.
Mass nouns usually refer to:
- ideas, concepts (e.g. approval, employment)
- substances (e.g. meat, metal)
- liquids (e.g. water, beer)
- powders (e.g. dust, sugar)
Some words may be either a unit noun or a mass noun, e.g. chicken
- Unit: My parents keep chickens. (birds)
- Mass: I don’t usually eat chicken. (meat)
- “I found a piece of chicken in my soup.” (mass = a piece of meat)
- “I found a piece of a chicken in my soup.” (unit = a piece of a bird)
There are 4 types of mass nouns:
- Singular nouns that are always mass nouns
- Plural nouns that are always mass nouns
- Nouns that can be unit nouns or mass nouns and have the same meaning
- Nouns that can be unit nouns or mass nouns but have different meanings
1. Singular nouns that are always mass nouns
These nouns have no plural form.
In many languages information is a unit noun, and has both singular and plural forms. This is NOT the case in English.
As a result mistakes with information are very common.
WRONG: The informations that you sent us in your last email are out of date.
RIGHT: The information that you sent us in your last email is out of date.
2. Plural nouns that are always mass nouns
These nouns have no singular form. They take the plural verb form (“are”, not “is”) except for “news” which takes “is”.
- arms (i.e. weapons)
3. Nouns that can be unit nouns or mass nouns and have the same meaning
- Unit: Can I get you a coffee?
- Mass: I’ve spilt coffee all over my keyboard.
- Unit: An agreement was signed on 25 July 2014.
- Mass: The parties are not in agreement on this matter.
- Unit: He owns three different businesses.
- Mass: Mumbai is a rapidly growing centre for business.
- Unit: We will send you an English translation by COB.
- Mass: Her experience includes legal translation.
- Unit: We have made some improvements to the document.
- Mass: Recently we have seen some improvement in the economic conditions.
- Unit: My secondment to London was a really valuable experience.
- Mass: I gained valuable experience from my time in London.
4. Nouns that can be unit nouns or mass nouns but have different meanings
- Unit: The company has put up over 50 notices in various locations on the premises. (informational signs)
- Mass: In accordance with his contract, the employee was given one month’s notice. (prior warning)
- Unit: The pilot sat down at the controls. (knobs and switches)
- Mass: Since he retired he has been reluctant to relinquish control of the company. (command, domination)
- Unit: He has acquired an interest in the company. (a share)
- Mass: Money deposited in a savings account earns interest.
Native English speakers play with the language by using nouns that are normally unit nouns as mass nouns for humorous effect.
E.g. The IT guys are installing a new hard drive. My desk is all covered in computer! => Computer as substance.
The opposite – i.e. using mass nouns as unit nouns – is common among businesspeople and lawyers.
E.g. arbitrations, consents, coverages, expenditures, inactions, insurances, litigations, trainings.
Quantifiers are words and phrases used to indicate quantity. Below is a list showing quantifiers that are different for unit and mass nouns.
More, most, some, any, all, a lot of, enough, no are used with both unit and mass nouns.
Quantifiers used with unit nouns
- a number of coins
- few seats
- a few friends
- fewer rooms
- many dogs
- each / every document
- several desks
Quantifiers used with mass nouns
- an amount of money
- little space
- a little help
- less accommodation
- much noise
- all documentation
- some furniture