One of the most confusing concepts for learners of English is the difference between count and non-count nouns. Fundamentally, count nouns are perceived as individual items that can be multiplied and counted (chairs, essays, ideas, sentences, etc.), whereas non-count nouns are masses, abstractions, or things that do not take a fixed shape and thus cannot be counted (water, information, research, oxygen. etc.). In addition, most nouns formed from verbs (with an –ing suffix) are non-count (reading, swimming, bird-watching) as are nouns that refer to a collection of other, usually count, nouns (so furniture includes tables and chairs; luggage includes suitcases and bags).
The Challenge of Teaching Count vs Non-Count Nouns
However, students are often puzzled by nouns that exist with both count and non-count forms. For example, language (non-count) separates humans from animals, but English and Chinese are two of the world’s most widely-spoken languages (count). You might check your child’s work (non-count) and then declare her painting to be a work (count) of art. In most cases, the non-count noun is abstract: it refers to a whole idea (the idea of language, all her homework, etc.). The count noun is more concrete: it refers to one instance, example, or piece (one particular language, one painting, etc.). The other explanation is that since a count noun can be plural, the count form of this otherwise non-count noun suggests that there are many different types of it. For instance, we correctly teach students that they are learning English. However, there are important differences between the English spoken in the U.S., Canada, U.K., India, and elsewhere, so linguists often talk about world Englishes. This is common in academic writing when experts recognize many different types of something. For example, most of us look at the ground and see soil (non-count), while a geologist would tell us that there are many different soils (count).
The downloadable worksheet contains an exercise to give your students practice understanding and using count and non-count forms of some familiar nouns.
Download the “Countable Nouns” Activity.