GRAMMAR REVISION: COUNTABLE AND UNCOUNTABLE NOUNS

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Why do we say There weren’t many people at the party but There wasn’t much wine?

When you look at these sentences carefully, you’ll notice that it all depends on the noun. People are countable, in that you can count them – 1 person, 2 people. Wine, on the other hand, cannot be counted. You cannot say 1 wine, 2 wines. 2 glasses (or bottles!) of wine, yes, but not just 2 wines. So wine is an uncountable noun.

Countable nouns are nouns we can talk about in the singular and in the plural. Uncountable nouns usually don’t have a plural form.

Countable nouns are objects and things, which is why they are able to be easily counted. Uncountable nouns, on the other hand, are usually abstract concepts (knowledge, advice) or things or objects which are of a substance such that it is difficult to count (sand, milk).

How do we use countable and uncountable nouns?

Countable and uncountable nouns differ in which quantifiers can be used with them. Countable nouns can use: many, a few; uncountable nouns use: much, a little. Both sets of nouns can use: lots of or a lot of.

What problems do learners have with countable and uncountable nouns?

The first problem learners have with countable and uncountable nouns is understanding the concept and so using incorrect quantifiers.

For example: How many money do you have?

The second problem arises because certain nouns can be countable and uncountable depending on their usage.

For example:

I’ve seen that movie many times.

I didn’t have time to do my homework.

Here, time is countable in the first sentence but uncountable in the second.

A final problem is the fact that uncountable nouns are not used in the plural. Learners may not realise this and may use them in the plural form. This may also be a transfer problem from their first language in which the same noun is countable.

For example: He gave me a lot of informations about the course.

When teaching your students about the different parts of speech, don’t gloss over nouns because you think they are a simple aspect of English. In fact, there are lots of rules relating to nouns which need to be clarified to our learners in order for them to be able to use nouns appropriately in their English production. You need to actually focus on the grammar of nouns. In other words, you need to make sure your students know not only the form, meaning and pronunciation of the words, but also the rules governing their use.

A helpful teaching idea is to utilise a categorisation activity in class. Write down a set of countable and uncountable nouns on big pieces of paper and allow the students to put them into two categories on the board – countable and uncountable. Allowing them time to think about and discuss the nouns will help them remember the rules.

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