Countable and uncountable nouns
Many of my blog posts are inspired by the academic essays and dissertations that I proofread and copy-edit for clients. Sometimes I’m so distracted by an interesting subject that I can spend a good half an hour nosing about on Wikipedia finding out more. Sometimes I don’t always know the answer to some of the more tricky points of grammar and punctuation, or I do know the answer but I’ve been staring at the word or phrase for so long that I’ve confused myself. Recently I was checking a fascinating paper about household food consumption habits, when I came the term ‘fruits and vegetables’. Instinctively my inclination was to change ‘fruits and vegetables’ to ‘fruit and vegetables’, so I decided to delve into this a little further.
First, you need to distinguish between countable and uncountable nouns. Most nouns are countable. This means they refer to something that can be counted and they have different forms for singular and plural. You can also use ‘a’ or ‘an’ (the indefinite article) or a number in front of the singular form. The plural is usually formed by adding an ‘s’. Taking the food theme, some examples are: banana – you can say a banana or three bananas, and a carrot or several carrots.
Bread or breads?
Some nouns are uncountable because they refer to things which cannot be counted, such as bread, water, furniture or wine – you wouldn’t say ‘a bread’ or ‘two wine’, so there is no singular or plural form. In fact, the word food is an uncountable noun. Of course, like many things in the English language it isn’t always straightforward, and it is possible to make an uncountable noun into a countable one by adding some words of quantity or type. For example, two glasses of wine, or a piece of fruit.
One for the grammar pedants
Oxford Dictionaries reminded me that there are some words that should only be used with countable nouns and other words that should only be used with uncountable nouns. One example is the well-known less v. few controversy. The basic rule is that less should only be used with uncountable nouns and fewer should only be used with countable nouns. Here’s an example:
Countable noun — there are fewer stars in the sky tonight
Uncountable noun — there was less food this week
I remember this rule by thinking that there are less uncountable nouns in the English lexicon, although according to our friend Fowler it may not be quite as straightforward as we’d wish. I’ll leave that debate to another time and finish with his quote about the consequences of breaking this basic rule: “infringement of which causes a violent, Pavolvian reaction among the grammatically pure at heart…” (Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2015).