The concept of count versus non-count nouns presents special difficulties for students for whom English is a second language. For one thing, the determination of what nouns are countable and what nouns are non-countable is by no means universal. For instance, although somebody can advise us several times, we can't say they give us advices, although that would translate quite nicely into several other languages. We would say, in English, that they give us advice. In some languages, it makes sense to sit in a restaurant with a friend and ask for waters (and get two glasses of water) — something that would sound quite peculiar in English. There are categories of count and non-count nouns and interesting ways in which these categories overlap and merge into one another. The following table will illustrate these categories. In this table, the words in reverse type (white on black) are either impossible or quite unlikely. (Seinfeld is the name of a popular American television program.)

Carlos saw 1 2 3 4
Seinfeld tree dancing paper
the Seinfeld the tree the dancing the paper
a Seinfeld a tree a dancing a paper
some Seinfeld some tree some dancing some paper
Seinfelds trees dancings papers

Nouns that would fall into the column 1 category, along with Seinfeld, would be called proper nouns and proper nouns are generally non-countable (exceptions: We can say that "there are four Harrys in the room," and political entities such as the U.S. Virgin Islands can be countable when used as geographical entities — "the Virgin Islands are among the most beautiful …" — and a definite article is used with such pluralized geographical names). Nouns in the other three columns are common nouns.

In column 2, along with tree, we could place count-nouns that we regard always as individual, countable items.

In column 3, we could place non-count nouns like dancing that are not countable, things that we regard as "undifferentiated mass" (like the water we spilled on the floor, one big mess, as opposed to the beads that we spilled on the floor, dozens of little countable things).

In column 4, we could place nouns such as paper, stone, and cake that can be either count or non-count nouns. For instance, I can enter a bakery and say "I want a cake" (an individual bakery product), or, before we enter, I can tell a friend that "I want cake" and not refer to a specific cake but simply mean that the idea of eating cake appeals to me — any cake or piece of cake with chocolate frosting will do, thank you.

It is this fourth column of nouns that confounds many writers. The distinction we make here between count and non-count is important for two reasons: it makes a difference whether we use an article with the noun or not and the meaning of the word can change depending on whether it is being used in its count or non-count form. Some examples:

She had many experiences. Does she have enough experience?
The lights were bright. Light hurts my eyes.
There's a hair in my soup! Hair is important on a cold day.
Give me three coffees. I'd love some coffee.
We study sugars in organic chemistry. Put sugar in my coffee.
The papers were stacked on the table. We wrote on paper.

When a non-count noun is used to classify something, it can be treated as a count noun. Thus, wine is usually a non-count noun ("I'd love wine with dinner"), and even if we have more than one glass of wine, we're still enjoying wine, not wines. But when we put wine into categories, the noun becomes countable: "There are many fine Canadian wines." Even water can become countable under the right circumstances: "the waters of the Pacific Ocean are noticeably colder this year." Sometimes a noun will be either countable or non-countable and mean practically the same thing:

Ideas for the above tables are based on material found in A University Grammar of English by Randolph Quirk and Sidney Greenbaum. Longman Group: Essex, England. 1993. Used with permission. Examples our own.

We recommend, also, that you refer to our section on Articles and Determiners for additional review of the words that modify and quantify nouns.

QuizIdentifying Count and Non-Count Nouns

QuizCategorizing Nouns: A Crossword Puzzle