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Countable vs uncountable nouns
The third nounal opposition differentiates between the names of individuals (living beings and objects) which can be counted and those that cannot. Countables as compared with uncountables are able to be used with the indefinite article in the singular and have a plural form.
Common concrete class nouns are always countable: a man — men, bird — birds, a pen — pens. Proper nouns are usually uncountable with the exception of very few cases like two Marys. There were two Marys in our group. Concrete nouns denoting materials such as air, snow, gold, sugar are always uncountable though in cases like wine, water, sand plural forms are also recurrent: a wide choice of French wines, across the burning sands of the desert, fishing in Icelandic waters. Collective nouns constitute a special group of words which may be either countable or uncountable. Countables are as follows: family, crowd, committee, team, government, club, school, union, choir, orchestra, staff, jury, firm, the B.B.C., the Bank of England, etc. When used as subject of a sentence they can be associated with both singular and plural verb: Our family has/have lived in this house for over a century. The government wants/want to reduce taxes. Uncountable collective nouns fall into 2 groups. The first one comprises nouns which denote a number of things collected together and regarded as a single object: foliage, furniture, luggage, baggage, machinery, money, scenery. They take a singular verb: New machinery is being installed in the factory. Where is the money? — It is on the table. The second group consists of nouns expressing multitude: police, gentry, cattle, poultry. In a sentence they are used with a
plural verb: The police have caught the criminal. The cattle are in the shed.
Sometimes a word may be both countable and uncountable with a difference in meaning. The collective noun people is the case in point. It is countable in the sense of «a race or a nation» and uncountable in the meaning of «persons, human beings». Compare: Were there many people at the meeting? — The Chinese is a hard-working people. More examples of the kind: I bought a paper, (a newspaper) — I bought some paper, (material for writing); We had many interesting experiences during our day. (things that happened to us) — You need experience for this job. (knowledge or skill which comes from practice).
Abstract nouns are most multifarious and irregular that makes them particularly difficult to classify as coun-tables or uncountables. This applies to any group they fall into. Those which indicate qualities (kindness, sadness, courage) are usually uncountable though some of them -may be both countable and uncountable. Compare: to succeed by strength of will — the strengths and weaknesses of the argument. As the example shows the uncountable noun may become countable if it is supposed to express an instance or instances of a certain quality. The same double nature can be observed in a number of abstract names referred to states, processes, generalized notions and periods of time: to have a fear of something — to fight without fear, to have a (telephone) conversation — to be in conversation with somebody, to move in the direction of London — to have a sense of direction, to be on holiday in summer — a hot summer.
At the same time certain abstract nouns denoting states, processes and generalized notions, such as behaviour, chaos (states), progress, traffic, travel, business, work (states or processes), accommodation, advice, information, news, permission (generalized notions) are uncountable.
Yet quite a bit of nouns used to name periods of time are always countable: a minute, an hour, a week, a year, a century and so on.
Abstract names for phenomena may be either countable (storm, earthquake) or uncountable (weather, lightning) or both: The crops need rain. — A heavy rain began to fall.
Abstract nouns denoting fields of knowledge or activities like linguistics, gymnastics are usually uncountable and take a singular verb: Linguistics is the study of language in general and of particular languages, their structure, grammar and history.
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