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CHAPTER 16.  UNCOUNTABLE NOUNS

Some English nouns usually cannot form a plural or be preceded by a, an or a number. Because they usually cannot be preceded by a number, such nouns can be referred to as uncountable. English uncountable nouns include:

a) nouns naming intangible things which normally cannot be counted:
e.g. honesty
      courage
      impatience

b) nouns naming tangible things which are thought of as substances:
e.g. butter
      milk
      sand

c) nouns naming groups of things which in English are referred to collectively:
e.g. furniture
      luggage
      news

d) names of languages:
e.g. English
      German
      Spanish

An uncountable noun takes a singular verb.
e.g. Honesty is a virtue.
      Butter tastes good.
      Furniture was provided.

 

1. The absence of a determiner before uncountable nouns


a. Making a general statement
In general statements, uncountable nouns are usually not preceded by determiners. The uncountable nouns in the following general statements are underlined.
e.g. Information is often valuable.
      Butter is fattening.
      Courage and honesty are admirable qualities.
      Sunlight and water are usually required for plants to grow.

b. Referring to something not mentioned before
In descriptions, uncountable nouns are generally not preceded by a determiner when naming something which has not been referred to previously.
e.g. Rain was forecast for the next day.
      However, thunder and lightning were not expected.
      Our breakfast consisted of bread, honey and marmalade.

In these examples, the uncountable nouns rain, thunder, lightning, bread, honey and marmalade are not preceded by determiners. It is assumed that the things referred to by these nouns have not been mentioned previously.

See Exercise 1.

 

2. The use of The before uncountable nouns


a. Referring to something mentioned before
The is used with uncountable nouns referring to things previously mentioned.
e.g. We were served bread and cheese. The bread was somewhat stale, but the cheese was delicious.
      Gold was discovered in the Klondike. The gold attracted thousands of prospectors.
      Furniture and clothing are being sold at the flea market. The furniture is reasonably priced, and the clothing is cheap.

In these examples, the first time the uncountable nouns bread, cheese, gold, furniture and clothing are used, they are not preceded by determiners, because the things referred to have not been mentioned previously. The second time these nouns are used, they are preceded by the, since the things referred to have already been mentioned.

See Exercise 2.

b. Referring to something when it is considered obvious what is meant
The is used with uncountable nouns when the speaker or writer considers it obvious which particular thing is meant.
e.g. The weather is fine.
      The butter is hard.
      The music is too loud.
The expression the weather usually refers to the local weather. The expression the butter could refer to butter which one plans to use, and the expression the music could refer to music which is playing nearby.

The is often used before uncountable nouns followed by descriptive phrases, since such phrases tend to make it clear to which particular things the uncountable nouns are referring.
e.g. The warmth of the sun causes water to evaporate.
      The coal mined in Germany is used in making steel.
      The milk which they produce is marketed locally.

In the first sentence, the is used with the uncountable noun warmth, since the phrase of the sun specifies what warmth is meant. In the second sentence, the is used with the uncountable noun coal, since the phrase mined in Germany specifies which particular coal is meant. In the third sentence, the is used with the uncountable noun milk, since the phrase which they produce makes it clear which particular milk is meant.

As shown in the following table, the absence of a determiner and the use of the before uncountable nouns follows a pattern similar to the absence of a determiner and the use of the before plural countable nouns.

The absence of a determiner and the use of The before uncountable nouns


UseUncountable Nouns
  Making a general statement  no determiner
  Something not mentioned before  no determiner
  Something mentioned before  the
  When it is obvious what is meant  the

 

3. The use of uncountable nouns to refer to individual things


Uncountable nouns can be used to refer to individual things by being preceded by a countable noun and the word of. For example:

Uncountable NounReferring to an Individual Thing
  information  a piece of information
  wheat  a grain of wheat
  milk  a glass of milk
  sunlight  a patch of sunlight

The countable nouns may, of course, be put into the plural. For example:

SingularPlural
  one piece of information  two pieces of information
  one grain of wheat  three grains of wheat
  one glass of milk  four glasses of milk
  one patch of sunlight  five patches of sunlight

In sentences such as the following, it is the countable noun which is the subject of the verb.
e.g. Fifty grains of wheat are required.
      Two glasses of milk are enough.
In the above examples, the plural countable nouns grains and glasses each take the plural verb are.

In English, the names of games are usually uncountable nouns.
e.g. He plays hockey.
      Chess is a challenging game.

When it is desired to refer to individual games, the word game must usually be used. For example:

Uncountable NounReferring to an Individual Thing
  chess  a game of chess
  hockey  a game of hockey or a hockey game


See Exercise 3.

 

4. Nouns which can be either countable or uncountable


Many English nouns are used sometimes as countable nouns and sometimes as uncountable nouns. Nouns which can be either countable or uncountable include nouns which may have different shades of meaning; normally uncountable nouns which are used to refer to types of things; and a few nouns which refer to places used for specific activities.

a. Differences in meaning
Many nouns are uncountable when they refer to something as a substance or a concept, but are countable when they refer to an individual thing related to the substance or concept. For instance, cake is used as an uncountable noun when referring to cake as a substance, but is used as a countable noun when referring to individual cakes.
e.g. Cake and ice cream is my favorite dessert.
      This afternoon we baked two cakes.
In the first sentence cake is an uncountable noun, and in the second sentence cakes is a countable noun.

Similarly, life is used as an uncountable noun when referring to life as an abstract concept, but is used as a countable noun when referring to individual lives.
e.g. Life is full of surprises.
      It was feared that two lives had been lost.
In the first sentence life is an uncountable noun, and in the second sentence lives is a countable noun.

b. Referring to a type of something
An uncountable noun can be used as countable noun when it refers to a type of something.
e.g. He has an honesty which is rare nowadays.
      The wheats of Canada differ from those of India.
In the first sentence, the usually uncountable noun honesty is used with an as a countable noun to refer to a type of honesty. In the second sentence, the usually uncountable noun wheat is used as a countable noun in the plural to refer to types of wheat.

c. Referring to places used for specific activities
A few nouns referring to places used for specific activities can be either countable or uncountable. These nouns are used as uncountable nouns when referring to places as locations where specific activities are carried out, but are used as countable nouns when referring to the places as objects. In the following pairs of sentences, the words bed and church are used first as uncountable nouns, and then as countable nouns.
e.g. Because I was tired, I stayed in bed.
      Please help me to move the bed.

      She goes to church.
      She likes to photograph churches.

In the first pair of sentences, stayed in bed refers to the activity of resting in bed; whereas move the bed refers to a bed as an object. In the second pair of sentences, goes to church refers to the activity of taking part in church services; whereas likes to photograph churches refers to churches as objects.

Nouns which are used in this way include:

  bed  home  sea
  church  hospital  town
  college  prison  university
  court  school 


d. Names of meals
Similarly, the word television and the names of meals such as breakfast, lunch, dinner and supper are used as uncountable nouns when it is desired to emphasize the activity being carried out.
e.g. They are watching television.
      We are eating breakfast.

See Exercise 4.

 

5. Infinitives used in the place of nouns


Infinitives are sometimes used in the place of nouns.
e.g. To ski well is one of my goals.
      They plan to call us.

In the first sentence, the infinitive to ski performs the function of a noun, since it is the subject of the verb is. In the second sentence, the infinitive to call performs the function of a noun, since it is the object of the verb to plan. These infinitives also function as verbs, since to ski is described by the adverb well, and to call takes the object us.

Like an uncountable noun, an infinitive which is the subject of a verb takes a singular verb. Unlike an uncountable noun, an infinitive usually cannot be preceded by the word the.

 

6. Gerunds


Present participles are often used in the place of nouns. A present participle used in the place of a noun is usually referred to as a gerund. In the following sentences, the gerunds are underlined.
e.g. Skating is good exercise.
      They like jogging.
In the first sentence, skating is the subject of the verb is. In the second sentence, jogging is the object of the verb like.

A gerund can perform the functions of a noun and a verb at the same time.
e.g. Riding a bicycle is good exercise.
      They like playing hockey.

In the first sentence, the gerund riding functions as a noun, since it is the subject of the verb is; and also functions as a verb, since it takes the object bicycle. In the second sentence, the gerund playing functions as a noun, since it is the object of the verb like; and also functions as a verb, since it takes the object hockey.

In their role as nouns, gerunds are sometimes regarded as uncountable nouns. Like an uncountable noun, a gerund which is the subject of a verb takes a singular verb. Also, like an uncountable noun, a gerund can be preceded by the when referring to a particular thing or to something previously mentioned.
e.g. The skiing was excellent.
      He went hunting. The hunting was good.

In the first example, the skiing could refer to skiing done at a particular place. In the second example, the hunting refers to the hunting mentioned in the previous sentence.

 

7. Specific verbs followed by infinitives and gerunds


a. Verbs followed by infinitives
Many English verbs can be followed by an infinitive. In the following examples, the verbs are underlined, and the infinitives are printed in bold type.
e.g. They want to succeed.
      He hopes to travel next year.

The following verbs can take an infinitive as an object, but cannot take a gerund as an object:

  agree  demand  learn  promise
  appear  deserve  manage  refuse
  arrange  expect  mean  seem
  ask  fail  need  tend
  claim  forget  offer  threaten
  consent  hesitate  plan  wait
  dare  hope  prepare  want
  decide  intend  pretend 

Other examples of the use of infinitives with these verbs are:
      They agreed to come.
      He expected to win.
      She managed to keep the secret.
      We pretended to agree with them.

b. Verbs followed by either infinitives or gerunds
Some English verbs can be followed either by an infinitive or by a gerund. In the following examples, the verbs are underlined, and the infinitives and gerunds are printed in bold type.
e.g. I like to fish.
      I like fishing.

      She prefers to ride a bicycle.
      She prefers riding a bicycle.

The following verbs can take either an infinitive or a gerund as an object:

  attempt  like
  begin  love
  cease  prefer
  commence  propose
  continue  start
  hate  try


c. Verbs followed by gerunds
Other English verbs can be followed by a gerund, but cannot be followed by an infinitive used as an object. In the following examples, the verbs are underlined, and the gerunds are printed in bold type.
e.g. They disliked waiting.
      It stopped raining.

The following verbs can take a gerund as an object, but cannot take an infinitive as an object:

  1  2  3  4  5
  keep  appreciate  admit  avoid  complete
  practise  deplore  anticipate  defer  finish
  risk  detest  consider  delay  quit
    dislike  deny  escape  stop
    dread  discuss  miss 
    enjoy  mention  postpone 
    loathe  recall   
    mind  recommend   
    regret  suggest   
    resent     
    resist     
    tolerate     

It should be noted that many of the verbs listed above have similar meanings. The second column contains verbs which express feelings about doing something; many of the feelings are negative. The third column contains verbs which refer to thoughts about doing something. The fourth column contains verbs which refer to negative actions with respect to doing something. The fifth column contains verbs which refer to ceasing to do something.

Other examples of the use of gerunds with these verbs are:
      I kept calling the office.
      We appreciate hearing from you.
      He denies following us.
      They avoid discussing the subject.
      She finished filling in the blanks.

See Exercise 5.

 

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