The difference between countable and uncountable nouns (unit and mass nouns)

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:

  1. Singular nouns that are always mass nouns
  2. Plural nouns that are always mass nouns
  3. Nouns that can be unit nouns or mass nouns and have the same meaning
  4. 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.


  • furniture
  • equipment
  • advice
  • information

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WRONG: The informations that you sent us in your last email are out of date.

RIGHT: The information that you sent us in your last email is out of date.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”.


  • clothes
  • trousers
  • scissors
  • thanks
  • news
  • customs
  • arms (i.e. weapons)
  • remains

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





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“Prepare for” or “prepare to”?

She spent three hours preparing to the court hearing.

She spent three hours preparing for the court hearing.

This is a very common mistake. But “prepare” is not always followed by “for”. Sometimes “to” is correct.

The rule is as follows:

Prepare for + noun (where “for” is a preposition)

Prepare to + verb (where “to” is an infinitive marker)


Prepare for + noun

We will need some time to prepare for the meeting.

He clearly had not prepared for the interview – he couldn’t give decent answers to even the most basic questions.

My son is having extra Maths lessons to prepare for the exam.

You can also prepare somebody for something, e.g. Have you prepared your witness for the hearing?

Prepare to + verb

The instructor opened the aeroplane door and gave my parachute one final check. “Prepare to jump”, he said.

There’s going to be a fire drill in ten minutes. Prepare to evacuate the building.

The above examples have a literal meaning – “prepare” means “prepare”. But very often “prepare to + verb” has the idiomatic meaning “to be willing to do something”, as in the following examples:

He said he was prepared to listen to all opinions, but he didn’t care about what I had to say.

I am prepared to do anything to help that is within the law. But I’m not prepared to do anything illegal.

We are not prepared to pay any further expenses.


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The “family is” or the “family are”?

Collective nouns are words that describe groups of people or things, e.g. “family” or “team”. Grammatically they are singular, but as they describe more than one individual, they may also take the plural form of a verb or use a plural pronoun.

For example, do we say “The family is arriving tomorrow” or “The family are arriving tomorrow”?

Is a family “it” or “they”?

The answer depends on whether you’re using British or American English, and on the emphasis you wish to make.

Very generally, in British English collective nouns are commonly treated as plurals, e.g. The government are debating the tax proposal. While in American English they take the singular verb form, e.g. The government is debating the tax proposal.

Usage of singular or plural also depends on whether you are emphasising the individuals in the group or the group as a single entity.

The below examples emphasise the individual members of the collective nouns rather than the collection as a single entity:

The management board were unable to agree with each other.
The team were walking through the gate in ones and twos.
The audience haven’t all arrived yet.
Not all the staff are happy about the new arrangements.

These examples emphasise the collective noun as a single entity:

The management board gave its consent.
The team was playing like a well-oiled machine.
The audience is ready for the concert to begin.
The staff accepts the new arrangements.

Other common collective nouns:



Police – always takes the plural: “Police are” Always refer to the police as “they”.

Number – when using the phrase “a number of” to mean “several” – use the plural.
E.g. A number of options were presented.
 A number of students have fallen ill.

When using the phrase “the number” to mean “the amount” – use the singular.
E.g. The number of protestors was astonishing.
The huge number of people arriving at the event has taken the organisers by complete surprise.


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Communication fail :)

Conversation overheard in a lift:

English businessman – So, what does your company do?
Polish businessman – Boring.
E – Excuse me?
P – Boring.
E – [blank stare]
P – It is mine company.
E – Oh, I see – your own company! Ha ha! You find it boring?
P – Yes. We find much boring.
E – Well, I’m sorry to hear that. Maybe it’s time you did something else.
P – No… There is much boring in Poland.
E – Oh come on! It’s not that bad!

“Boring” is a term used in mining and mechanical engineering which means drilling or making holes. The Polish man works for a successful mining company. The Englishman doesn’t understand any of that!


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Order of adjectives

Remember the film “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”?

I didn’t see it either. But it doesn’t matter. The point I’m going to discuss here is why we can’t say “My Greek Fat Big Wedding”.

In English there are rules about the order we place adjectives before a noun. Very generally, the rule is that the more important the adjective, the nearer it is to the noun. This usually results in this order:

observation, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose

So – “big” is a reference to size, “fat” is a reference to shape, and “Greek” is a reference to origin.

Here’s a more detailed breakdown:


General opinion adjectives can describe almost any noun.

E.g.: good, bad, strange, unusual, amazing, brilliant, excellent, wonderful, nice, nasty, awful 

Specific opinion adjectives describe particular nouns.

food: spicy, delicious
clothes: fashionable, casual
furniture: antique, comfortable
people: clever, intelligent, generous, friendly

A qualifier is an attributive noun or gerund (-ing form) that acts like an adjective and comes before the noun. You can have more than one of them (but normally not more than three). Examples are underlined below:

office building
running shoes
life insurance
district labour office
car parking space
share purchase agreement
employee share option scheme

Here are some examples of mistakes I’ve seen related to adjective order:

a Dutch leading manufacturer

a leading Dutch manufacturer => observation, origin

arbitration potential claims

potential arbitration claims => observation, qualifier

the economic recent instability

the recent economic instability => age, type

a Polish temporary residence permit

a temporary Polish residence permit => observation, origin, qualifier

The Purchaser has the right to make emergency two copies of the Software.

The Purchaser has the right to make two emergency copies of the Software. => determiner, qualifier

a separate, template, new employment agreement

a separate, new template employment agreement => observation, age, qualifier, qualifier



As with any rule, there are exceptions. The main exception can be illustrated by this example:

Australian red wine => origin, colour

According to the table above, we should say red Australian wine, but we don’t. This is because the adjective “red” classifies the type of wine – so it should be placed in the material/type column in the table above.

Australian red wine => origin, type

In this example “red” is the more important adjective; Australian the less important.

At home we have some posh soap. It describes itself as “Scottish fine soap”, but, according to the rules, you would expect it to be “fine Scottish soap”. It’s “Scottish fine soap” for similar reasons to “Australian red wine” – where “fine” is used to classify the type of soap rather than just express an opinion about it. So this soap is definitively fine. That’s why I know it’s posh. The same structure is used with all sorts of products: “fine wine”, “fine leather goods”, “fine food” etc. etc.

Another exception derives from the rule of ablaut reduplication. Although it has a rather complicated-sounding name, this rule is best explained by reference to childhood songs and stories.

In the story of Little Red Riding Hood there is the Big Bad Wolf. According to the adjective order rules, it should be the Bad Big Wolf – “bad” being a general opinion.

But the rule of ablaut reduplication trumps the adjective order rule. We say “zig zag”, “tic tac”, “mish mash”, “riff raff”, “chit chat”, “pitter patter”, “ding dong”, “ping pong”, “flip flop”, “hip hop” etc. etc. So we must also say “big bad”.

If you know the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, you’ll know the phrase “fee fi fo fum”. Similarly, we say “reading and writing” and never “writing and reading”.

The rule of ablaut reduplication is so powerful because it goes beyond any individual language. Think of the French children’s song Frère Jacques ­ ­– “din dan don” – and the Polish version, Panie Janie – “bim bam bom”. It’ll come as no surprise to learn that Jacob Grimm was among the first to describe this rule.



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How to use “all”, “whole” and “entire”

The words “all”, “whole” and “entire” are quantifiers. This means they indicate aspects of quantity.

Their usage depends on the type of noun they describe, i.e. singular or plural, countable or uncountable.


“All (of the)” can generally be used with all types of noun, e.g.:

Singular countable nouns

The lessor has leased all of the building.

I waited all morning for a call from London.

Plural countable nouns

They have plans to sell all or a significant portion of the assets.

Have they paid all the invoices from 2015 yet?

Uncountable nouns

Please send us all the documentation you have on the matter.

They have not sent us all the information we asked for.


“Whole (of the)” can be used with singular countable nouns, e.g.:

The lessor has leased the whole building.

We’ve rented the whole of the 5th floor as we’re planning to take on more staff.

“Whole” cannot be used with plural countable nouns or uncountable nouns, e.g.:

Plural countable nouns

They have plans to sell the whole or a significant portion of the assets.

Have they paid the whole of the invoices from 2015 yet?

In the Contractor’s opinion the whole snags were rectified before handover of the building. => all the snags

Uncountable nouns

Please send us the whole documentation you have on the matter.

They have not sent us the whole information we asked for.

The Operator does not guarantee the off-take of the whole electric energy generated at the wind farm. => all the electric energy


“Entire” and “whole (of the)” are synonyms and usually interchangeable. “Entire” is more formal.

“Entire” can be used with singular countable nouns, e.g.:

The lessor has leased the entire building.

We’ve rented the entire 5th floor as we’re planning to take on more staff.

Like “whole”, “entire” cannot be used with plural countable nouns or with most uncountable nouns.

Entire of” is wrong, but “the entirety of (the)” is correct, although it’s wordy and over formal, so I don’t recommend it.

If you need to use “of” or “of the”, you cannot use “entire”, e.g.:


The unemployment rate for entire Poland was 18%.


The unemployment rate for the whole of Poland was 18%.

The unemployment rate for all of Poland was 18%.


You do not have to pay them a bonus for entire 2015.


You do not have to pay them a bonus for the whole of 2015.

You do not have to pay them a bonus for all of 2015.

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Phrasal verbs for business: Z

to zero in

to focus attention: We need to zero in on the client’s exact expectations for this software. Don’t bother with any additional functionality at this stage.

to zip up 

to keep something quiet: Keep this matter zipped up will you? It’s still highly confidential.

to zoom in

to magnify an image: Can you zoom in on that part of the picture? I want to read what the poster says.

to focus attention: Let’s now zoom in on the company’s debt problem.

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