Proofreading Tips: A Guide to Countable and Uncountable Nouns
Common nouns can be either countable or uncountable. But what does this mean in practice? And what does a proofreader need to know about countable and uncountable nouns? In this post, we set out the basics of how these noun types work and some common errors to look out for.
What Are Countable Nouns?
Countable nouns (also known as count nouns) are literally nouns that refer to things you can quantify with numbers.
Importantly, this means they have singular and plural forms. For example, dog is a countable noun. And if there is more than one dog, we use the plural form dogs. Other countable nouns include:
In fact, any noun where you can enumerate the plural form (e.g., three books, two women, a thousand stories) is a countable noun.
Since countable nouns can be either singular or plural, the correct verb form to use with them will depend on the noun form. For example:
Singular: The book is on the table.
Plural: The books are on the table.
In the first sentence above, we use the singular verb is to match the singular noun book. But since the second sentence uses the plural form books, we use the plural verb are as well.
Make sure to keep an eye on subject–verb agreement when proofreading, as using the incorrect verb form with either singular or plural countable nouns is a common error (especially among ESL writers).
What Are Uncountable Nouns?
Uncountable nouns (also known as non-count nouns) are nouns that refer to things that cannot be counted or separated into discrete individual items (or that are not typically counted or separated as individual items). In other words, uncountable nouns refer to things that are conceived as a whole or mass. Common types of uncountable noun include:
- Liquids, gases, powders, and grains (e.g., milk, water, air, sand, rice)
- Materials and substances (e.g., gold, concrete, clay)
- Abstract concepts (e.g., knowledge, advice, darkness, language)
- Natural phenomena (e.g., grass, sunshine, weather, thunder)
- Mass nouns (e.g., furniture, luggage, equipment)
As well as not being countable, the main grammatical feature of uncountable nouns is that they’re singular and do not have plural forms. And since these nouns are always singular, they are almost always used alongside singular verbs as well. For example, if we’re discussing the foodstuff rice, we would use the singular form rice and pair it with singular verb forms regardless of how much rice there is:
The rice is in the bowl. ✔
The rices are in the bowl. ✘
And if we wanted to count rice, we would need to add a measurement or unit such as grains of between the number and the word rice:
There are three grains of rice left in the bowl. ✔
There are three rices left in the bowl. ✘
This can be confusing, especially for those who speak English as an additional language, so make sure to look out for incorrect pluralization of uncountable nouns when proofreading.
Using Articles with Countable and Uncountable Nouns
Beyond pluralization, another key difference between countable and uncountable nouns is how we use the definite article (i.e., the), the indefinite article (i.e., a or an), and the zero article with these words.
Singular countable nouns can be used with either the definite article (when referring to a specific instance of the noun whose identity is known) or the indefinite article (when referring to a singular but non-specific instance of the noun or when its identity is unknown):
The dog has a bone. ✔
I saw a dog with a bone. ✔
And plural countable nouns can be used with the definite article (when referring to a specific group of the noun in question) or the zero article (when referring to the noun in general):
The dogs all have bones. ✔
Dogs love bones. ✔
However, uncountable nouns can’t be used with the indefinite article. They are only used with the definite article (when referring to a specific instance of the noun) or the zero article (when referring to the noun in general):
I swam in a water today. ✘
I swam in the water today. ✔
Water is essential for life. ✔
You should therefore check that the correct articles are used with uncountable nouns. And if you see an indefinite article used with an uncountable noun, it will usually need correcting.
Other Determiners with Countable and Uncountable Nouns
Beyond the definite and indefinite articles, there are some determiners related to quantity that differ depending on whether they’re used with plural countable or uncountable nouns. In particular, it is worth looking out for the quantifiers few/little, fewer/less, and many/much, plus number/amount when these terms are used to quantify another noun.
Each of these terms is typically used with either countable or uncountable nouns only. You can see examples of how they should be used below.
|Determiner||Countable Plural Noun||Uncountable Noun|
|Few/Little||She has few worries.||She has little hope.|
|Fewer/Less||There are fewer butterflies in my garden this year.||I have less time available now than I used to.|
|Many/Much||Do you have many friends?||Do you have much money?|
|Number/Amount||This issue poses a number of important questions.||Lighting the stage took a large amount of energy.|
However, other quantifiers, including all, some, more, a lot of, enough, most, no, and any, can be used with both countable and uncountable nouns. For example, all of the following are grammatical:
Countable: All of the cats are asleep.
Uncountable: All of the clothing is dirty.
Countable: We have a lot of dishes but no plates.
Uncountable: We have a lot of time but no money.
Countable: Does anyone have any questions?
Uncountable: Does anyone have any advice?
As a result, it is mostly issues regarding few/little, fewer/less, many/much, and number/amount that you should look out for when proofreading.
Can Less Be Used with Countable Nouns?
Despite the rules above, less is sometimes used with countable nouns!
You may see cases of this in phrases involving units of time, weight, distance, and money (e.g., less than five minutes, less than two ounces, less than thirty miles, less than ten dollars). Note, though, that time, weight, distance, and money are all themselves uncountable nouns, so we typically think of them in terms of amounts. For example, we would usually refer to having a certain amount of money, not a number of “monies,” since money is typically an uncountable noun.
A more controversial example is the well-known checkout message 10 items or less (and variations thereof). Traditionally, the use of less with the plural countable noun items has been considered incorrect. And this is still something that some people dislike. But it is now so widespread that most sources accept it as grammatical. And it is common to see similar formulations, such as a statement of 100 words or less.
Whether these “non-standard” uses of less need correction may depend on the context. If they are clear in meaning and sound natural, they may be fine (especially in less formal writing). But if the combination of less and a countable noun sounds wrong (e.g., There are less dogs in the park today) and/or your client is aiming for a formal tone, it may be better to use fewer.
In addition, fewer is still used exclusively with countable nouns. And sentences that combine fewer with an uncountable noun, such as fewer water or fewer sand, would be incorrect.
Nouns That Can Be Countable or Uncountable
Some nouns can be either countable or uncountable depending on how they’re used. And this can affect whether a sentence is grammatical.
For example, the word cake is often used as an uncountable noun to refer to cake as a concept (e.g., I love cake) or as an undifferentiated mass (e.g., I’ve eaten a lot of cake today). But it can also be used as a singular countable noun to refer to a specific cake (e.g., I made a cake today). And it can be pluralized (e.g., They had two cakes at the party).
Other examples of nouns that can be countable or uncountable include:
In some cases, the countable and uncountable forms have slightly different meanings: e.g., the countable noun paper refers to a piece of writing, whereas the uncountable form refers to the substance. In others, it is more a matter of focus: e.g., the plural experiences implies a series of distinct incidents, whereas the uncountable noun experience focuses on the overall knowledge gained from multiple experiences.
As a proofreader, it is therefore important to consider how a noun is being used. If it refers to things that can be counted individually (e.g., strands of hair), then it is a countable noun and should be treated as such grammatically. But if it refers to an undifferentiated mass of some substance or an abstract concept, it should be treated as an uncountable noun in all of the ways described so far in this post.
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