Overview of Noncount Nouns in English Grammar

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A noncount noun is a noun (such as oxygen, music, furniture, steam) that refers to something which can't be counted or divided. Also known as a mass noun. Contrast with count noun.

With a few exceptions, noncount nouns take singular verbs and are used only in the singular.

Many nouns have both countable and non-countable uses, such as the countable "dozen eggs" and the non-countable idiom "egg on his face."

Examples and Observations

"Arm in arm, the King and Bartholomew went down to the counting room to count out the gold."

(Dr. Seuss, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. Vanguard, 1938)

"Keep all trash and garbage away from your cat, and your cat out of trash cans and garbage bins."

(Wendy Christensen, Outwitting Cats. Lyons Press, 2004)

"She considered, maybe for the first time, how lucky she was to be able to pick up the phone and call her mother whenever she needed some bad advice."

(Brady Udall, The Lonely Polygamist. W.W. Norton, 2010)

"The novel manufactured to entertain great multitudes of people must be considered exactly like a cheap soap or a cheap perfume, or cheap furniture."

(Willa Cather, "The Novel Demeuble." The Editor, August 26, 1922)

"I read the news today, oh boy,
about a lucky man who made the grade,
and though the news was rather sad,
well I just had to laugh."

(John Lennon and Paul McCartney, "A Day in the Life." Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967)

Types of Noncount Nouns That May or May Not Take Determiners

" - Abstractions: democracy, education, health, knowledge, love
An education is of utmost importance.
Education is crucial to economic security.
- Groups of things: clothing, equipment, garbage, homework, money, traffic
The homework for French class is time-consuming.
I spend a lot of time doing homework.
- Substances: air, blood, coffee, ice, rice, tea, water, wood
This tea is watery.
She prefers tea for breakfast."

(Cheryl Glenn and Loretta S. Gray, The Hodges Harbrace Handbook, 18th ed. Wadsworth, 2013)

"[T]here is a resolute sadness between X and me that our marriage is over, a sadness that does not feel sad."

(Richard Ford, The Sportswriter. Vintage, 1986)

Noncount Nouns and Indefinite Articles

"Some noncount nouns accept the indefinite article when they are modified . . ., e.g.: They are doing a brisk business. (NOT * a business.)​ In some cases no modification seems to be required. In the following example, however, modification is in fact implied:​ She has had an education. ['a good education']"

(Randolph Quirk et al., A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. Longman, 1985)

"How do you go to a woman who lives at the foot of a mountain of sadness and shovel more around her ankles, the sadnesses of strangers?"

(Rick Bragg, All Over but the Shoutin'. Random House, 1999)

Quantifying Noncount Nouns

"What about 'a loaf of bread' or 'a slice of bread'? Aren't these count nouns? The noncount noun, e.g. bread is still a noncount noun. What has happened is that we have added a quantifiying phrase, a loaf or a slice, before the noncount noun, bread.
"Many noncount nouns can be quantified, that is made countable, by adding certain phrases before them: a grain of sand, three bottles of water, a piece of advice. When one of these phrases comes before a noun, we call the entire group of words a noun phrase."

(Andrea DeCapua, Grammar for Teachers: A Guide to American English for Native and Non-native Speakers. Springer, 2008)

Noncount Nouns and Mass Nouns

"Non-count nouns are often called 'mass' nouns. We have preferred 'non-count,' in part because it reflects clearly the test we use for determining whether a noun is count or non-count, in part because 'mass' is not suitable for the full range of non-count nouns. The term 'mass' is readily applicable with nouns like water or coal that denote substances but it is less evident that it applies transparently to abstract non-count nouns such as knowledge, spelling, work."

(Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2002)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Overview of Noncount Nouns in English Grammar." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/noncount-noun-term-1691433. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 28). Overview of Noncount Nouns in English Grammar. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/noncount-noun-term-1691433 Nordquist, Richard. "Overview of Noncount Nouns in English Grammar." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/noncount-noun-term-1691433 (accessed March 30, 2023).