Mistakes with uncountable nouns

There are some words that I see wrong so often in English texts here in Switzerland that I begin to doubt my sanity.

Maybe you can say “informations”, “feedbacks”, “advices” and “accommodations” in English?

No way! (A quick look in my grammar Bible brings me back to reality). You just can’t. These words are uncountable in English. Uncountable words only have one form. There is no “-s” form, and you can’t use “a” or “an” with them. In other languages, some words that are uncountable in English have a singular and plural form, for example the German translation of the word “advice” is “Eine Beratung” (an advice) and “Beratungen” (advices).

For this reason, teachers across the globe are hammering lists of countable and uncountable nouns into their students brains.

  • Uncountable: baggage, bread, chess, chewing gum, grass etc.
  • Countable: a case, a piece of bread/a loaf, a game of chess, a piece of chewing gum, a blade of grass etc.

Uncountable nouns describe things that are seen (by the English speakers) as a mass, rather than separate objects with clear boundaries. These can include: collections (for example “furniture” or “clothes”), materials (like “glass” and “wood”), liquids or things consisting of a lot of very small grains or dust (like “flour”, “sand” or “grit”) non-physical things (like unemployment or terror).

But it’s not always so easy. We have words like “peoples”. Can you use the word “peoples”?

Yes, sure! You can use “people” and “peoples”, but the meaning is different. Here are some “people” in Grand Central Station in New York:

Here, “people” means just some humans, rather than animals, robots or trees or whatever.

Here are some “peoples”

Above are some pictures representing the different “peoples” of Africa, Russia, Asia and Vietnam.

You can use the word “peoples”, for example, in the sentence, “Peoples of the world unite!” The difference between this and the sentence, “People of the world unite!” is that, in the first sentence, you are putting emphasis onto the fact that you are talking about a collection of groups of people from different cultures and races. Different kinds of people.

Here’s a simpler example: “washing powder” is generally uncountable. You usually put “washing powder” not “washing powders” into the machine. But you can say:

“Not all washing powders are kind to your skin.”

This is talking about different brands of washing powder, for example Ariel, Omo, Persil, or Held, or it could be talking about different types of washing powder, sensitive, with enzymes, without enzymes, liquid detergent, powder. Literally this sentence means, “Not all of the different types of washing powder available are kind to your skin.”

Nouns which are usually uncountable can be used as countable nouns when talking about food and drink, for example, “I love the wines of France.” (the bordeaux, the Chardonnay, the Champagne etc.) “The cake at my friend’s wedding was made up of a variety of cheeses” (Chedder, Double Gloucester, Cheshire etc.) Delicious!

An important thing to remember is that this use of uncountable nouns is unusual. If in doubt, stay away from peoples, wines and cheeses.

See you people soon! Leave a comment and/or a like, and if you have any questions leave them below too.

Images by: Erdenebayar Bayansan, Quang Nguyen vinh, kone kassoum, ianknabel66, Free-Photos, delo and Quang Nguyen vinh from Pixabay

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