What is an Uncountable Noun?

Grammar Glossary for Spanish Students

Macro shot of brown sugar grains
Compré dos libras de azúcar. (I bought two pounds of sugar). Ernesto r. Ageitos/Getty Images

An uncountable noun is exactly what it sounds like: a noun that refers to things that normally are not or cannot be counted. An uncountable noun is called a Nombre incontable or sustantivo incontable in Spanish, and sometimes known as a "mass noun," "non-count noun" or "partitive noun" in English.

How Do Uncountable Nouns Work?

One example of an uncountable noun is "courage," or coraje in Spanish—you can't say "one courage, two courages, three courages," and so forth in English, and you can't do it in Spanish either.

Normally, this word exists in the singular form only.

It is possible to quantify such a noun by using "a lot of" or "much" (mucho in Spanish), as in "He has a lot of courage" (Tiene mucho valor). It is also possible to quantify some uncountable nouns by using a measurement followed by "of" (de in Spanish), such as in "a liter of milk" (un litro de leche). 

What Kinds of Nouns Are Usually Uncountable?

Common types of uncountable nouns include personal qualities (such as "thoughtfulness" or consideración), liquids (such as "coffee" or café), and abstractions ("justice" or justicia).

Uncountable Nouns that Are Countable Sometimes

Some nouns are countable or uncountable depending on how they are used. For example, in normal usage, "salt" (sal) is uncountable. But a chemist might talk about different types of metallic salts (sales metálicas), in which case the word is being used as a countable noun.

Uncountable Nouns Don't Usually Need an Article

In Spanish, the grammatical significance of uncountable nouns is that they generally are not preceded by an article when talking about a portion. Example: Necesito sal. ("I need salt.") The speaker doesn't need all the salt, just a portion. Other examples: "Bebían leche" ("They drank milk.") and "Compraramos gasolina" ("We will buy gasoline.")

Examples of Uncountable Nouns in Sentences

Here are some more examples of how uncountable nouns may be used in Spanish:

  • La luz se propaga in todas direcciones. (The light propagates in all directions.)
  • Compré dos libras de azúcar. (I bought two pounds of sugar.)
  • La fidelidad matrimonial no tiene que ser un sueño. (Marital faithfulness doesn't have to be a dream.)
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Erichsen, Gerald. "What is an Uncountable Noun?" ThoughtCo, Mar. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/uncountable-noun-spanish-3079280. Erichsen, Gerald. (2017, March 2). What is an Uncountable Noun? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/uncountable-noun-spanish-3079280 Erichsen, Gerald. "What is an Uncountable Noun?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/uncountable-noun-spanish-3079280 (accessed April 26, 2018).