Count nouns or mass nouns—in the English language, it can quickly become confusing as to which one is which. To make matters more complicated, some languages consider nouns countable that English does not (for example, information or hair).
Whether you’re learning English as a second language or trying to master the grammar rules of English, you’ll need to understand the difference between count nouns or mass nouns in order to speak and write English correctly.
But what are count nouns and mass nouns? How do you make a noun plural? And how do you know when they’re count nouns or mass nouns?
Learning the difference between count nouns or mass nouns comes down to following certain patterns and rules. While there are exceptions—as to be expected with the English language—there are several basic grammar rules that can help uncomplicate the confusion.
Let’s get started!
What are Count Nouns?
A count noun is a noun—be it a person, place or thing—that can be separated into individual units and counted. Because of this, a count noun has both a singular and plural form.
When in singular form, a count noun must be used with the number 1, an article or other determiner, such as a demonstrative, quantifier or clarifier.
- One cow
- A boy
- That bridge
- Their eagle
- Sheila’s book
A few count nouns only have a plural form. These count nouns are often used with some kind of quantifier or quantity word to express how they are counted.
|Pants||A pair of pants|
|Shorts||Three pairs of shorts|
To make a count noun plural, we often add an -s or an -es at the end of the word.
When a count noun ends in -y, we change the -y to -ies to make it plural. However, if a vowel comes before the -y ending, simply add an -s at the end when the count noun should be plural.
When a count noun ends in -f or -fe, we change the -f or -fe to a -v and add -es to make it plural.
Some count nouns have irregular plurals, meaning they can’t be made plural by following the above rules. In these instances, we tend to memorize or consult reference guides for the plural form.
|Deer||Deer (no change)|
What are Mass Nouns?
A mass noun is a noun that is considered to exist in abstract quantities or in mass, therefore cannot be counted. Mass nouns are also referred to as non-count nouns or uncountable nouns. Because of this, mass nouns have no plural form and cannot be represented with a number.
Mass nouns frequently occur in academic writing but can also appear often in conversation and less formal communication. That’s why it’s important to learn how mass nouns work in English.
- Food and drink: milk, soda, coffee, tea, meat, bread
- Liquids and gases: water, air, gasoline, nitrogen
- Materials and substances: paper, plastic, wood, concrete, steel
- Nouns composed of uncountable number of particles: rice, salt, flour, rye, hair
- Concepts and qualities: admiration, happiness, honesty, bravery, truth
A number can’t come before a mass noun. For example, you can’t say “two coffees” or “three milks.” However, other count nouns can be used before a mass noun to measure quantity.
- Two cups of coffee
- Three gallons of milk
- A container of salt
- An act of bravery
Some mass nouns naturally end in -s and sound like plurals. Keep in mind that these mass nouns should still be used with singular verbs and pronouns.
- Economics is Norman’s favorite subject.
- Checkers is fun to play when it’s raining outside.
- That is fantastic news!
Most often, mass nouns take singular verbs. However, there are several mass nouns that are plural in form and take only plural verbs and pronouns.
- Are we driving through the outskirts of town?
- Here are my spectacles!
Nouns That Are Both Count Nouns and Mass Nouns
The English language always seems to have a few exceptions to the rule. In fact, there are several English nouns that can be both a count noun and mass noun, depending on how it is used in the sentence.
|COUNT NOUN||MASS NOUN|
|Cats are thought to have nine lives.||Do you think there is life on other planets?|
|Florence has three papers due next week.||A sheet of paper is jammed in the printer.|
|Do you hear a strange noise coming from the refrigerator?||Stop making so much noise!|
Count Nouns or Mass Nouns: Remembering the Difference
When in doubt, most nouns in English are count nouns. That being said, there are enough mass nouns that it helps to know if you are referring to count nouns or mass nouns in your sentences.
To recap the grammar guide above, here are some consistent rules to remember the difference between the two types of nouns:
|COUNT NOUNS||MASS NOUNS|
|Number before the noun||No number before the noun|
|Indefinite article before the noun (a/an)||No indefinite article before the noun|
|Requires a determiner before the noun||A determiner can be used before the noun, but not always required|
|Use modifiers before the noun that reflect number (many, few, fewer)||Use modifiers before the noun that reflect amount (much, little, less)|