Grammar | Confused by Nouns? 3 Things You Need to Know

Hi everyone! I’m Ms. Daphne, a teacher at Lil’ But Mighty. This is my first blog post and I hope that you will find it useful to understand more about countable and uncountable (mass) nouns, which many students have found confusing.

Grammar | Confused by Nouns? 3 Things You Need to Know

Huh? Why is luggage uncountable? Can’t you count the number of suitcases that you are carrying? And why do we say “she has long hair”, but “there are short black hairs on his legs”? Is hair countable or uncountable?

Like many students, these questions often clouded my mind when I was a young English learner. It didn’t make sense and I was often confused by the usage of nouns.

Grammar | Confused by Nouns? 3 Things You Need to Know

Photo courtesy of British Library from Unsplash

Just like what is mentioned in Sun Tzu’s quote, when you know what you are tackling well, you need not be afraid or anxious even if you have to confront it a hundred times.

While we cannot change the agonising fact that English grammar rules are confusing, we can deal with them by understanding nouns better. In the first part of the series on understanding nouns, we will look at:

  1. What are countable and uncountable (mass) nouns?
  2. Tricky uncountable nouns
  3. How mass nouns can be quantified (and be counted!)


1. Countable vs. Uncountable Nouns

Nouns, as we know, are words that describe a person, place, animal or thing.

Here are some examples:

  • Person: princess, cousin, driver, police

  • Place: library, toilet, zoo, kitchen,

  • Animal: fish, deer, mouse, leopard

  • Thing: stairs, table, rain, water, happiness, month

Among these, we can further categorise nouns into concrete nouns (material things that can be seen or touched e.g. fish and driver) and abstract nouns (things that cannot be seen or touched like ideas and feelings e.g. happiness and month).

What are countable and uncountable nouns then?

In simple terms, countable nouns refer to a person, place, animal and thing that can be counted and has a plural form.

For example:

Grammar | Confused by Nouns? 3 Things You Need to Know

On the other hand, uncountable (mass) nouns refer simply to a person, place, animal and thing that cannot be separated and counted individually. They are not used with a/an or other numbers, and their plural form does not exist. Uncountable nouns are also known as mass nouns.

For example:

Grammar | Confused by Nouns? 3 Things You Need to Know

2. Tricky Uncountable (Mass) Nouns

As mentioned earlier in this post, there are several confusing uncountable nouns, such as “luggage” and “equipment”. Some other tricky uncountable nouns are listed below.

Grammar | Confused by Nouns? 3 Things You Need to Know

Many English learners find it perplexing that these nouns (coloured in blue) are uncountable (mass) nouns because it seems possible to count them. You might have heard people using “all my luggages” and “I have so many equipments”. They would argue that they can count luggage and equipment. However, why are they considered uncountable mass nouns?

Nouns that are viewed as a Set

“Furniture”, “luggage” and “equipment” are mass nouns that are viewed as a set. To illustrate this point, let’s look at the table below:

Grammar | Confused by Nouns? 3 Things You Need to Know

As seen in the sentence examples, singular verbs are used with mass nouns. This is because, even though a mass noun is referring to more than 1 item, the items are taken to be a set.

3. Quantifying Mass Nouns

However, does it mean that I cannot count the number of items in the set? You can!

If you will like to specify many or exactly how many items are represented by the mass noun, you do so by adding ‘number + quantifier + of’ to the sentence. Mass nouns are singular subjects. By doing so, the ‘number + quantifier’ becomes the plural subject of the sentence. And when the subject is plural, a plural verb would be used in the sentence.

Grammar | Confused by Nouns? 3 Things You Need to Know

Exam Alert! Mass nouns often appear in Grammar, Grammar Cloze, Editing and Synthesis & Transformation sections of school tests, exams and the PSLE. Therefore, do take note when you find them in questions. Not only can the mass noun be tested alone [e.g. All my furniture IS ready to be shifted.], they can also appear with a quantity expression e.g. [e.g. Three pieces of my furniture ARE ready to be shifted.]. Therefore, be crystal clear about the subject. Understand when the mass noun is uncountable and when we are counting the exact pieces of the items in the set.

I hope your understanding of countable and uncountable nouns has improved with this post. Stay tuned for Part 2 of Confused by Nouns where I will be focusing on 3 aspects of plural nouns. Till then! ^-^/





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