What exactly is an uncountable noun?

I’ve written a little piece on the frustrations you may count on when you establish your own business. And as you know, I often include a ‘quick lesson’ at the end of my posts.

The topic of today’s grammar post is uncountable nouns, also called mass nouns and non-countable nouns. A colleague has pointed out to me that the quick lesson that I gave in the frustrations post is a little misleading, if not simply wrong. Hence my plan to devote an entire post to the subject.

I am shamelessly ignoring the fact that most people find grammar boring beyond belief. But this is a language site and blog, so I cannot always write about driving in Germany or establishing a business or love.

 

So what is it?

Easy to remember: you cannot count the noun.

'A noun that is uncountable cannot be made plural or used with a or an.' – Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

They are usually concepts or substances and cannot be separated into individual elements.

Its categories and examples:

  • Concepts: honesty, information, patience
  • Activities: playing, reading, sleeping
  • Food: butter, sugar, rice
  • Gas: air, oxygen, smoke
  • Liquids: coffee, water, wine
  • Materials: cloth, wood, metal
  • Items: clothing, software, money
  • Natural phenomena: heat, rain, sunshine
  • Particles: dust, salt, sugar

 

Breaking the rules

If you’ve ever studied or learned a language, you will know that practically no rule holds true.

Let’s look at water, it conforms to all the rules:

  • A water is clearly wrong.
  • However, you can say a drop of water, or some water, or a little.

Uncountable-nouns

But…hark at this. Have you heard of the term ‘taking the waters’? For instance, in Bath, England. The hot, mineral waters in Bath date from the Roman times and are said to have healing and therapeutic properties. There are many towns in Germany which have the word Bad in front of their names. The reason is the same, the town is or has been known for its hot spring. It also indicates that the town has received spa-status.

Bad Kissingen in Bavaria has been a spa town since 1883 and boasts many illustrious visitors in the past; the Austrian Empress Elizabeth (Sisi), the Prussian statesman Prince Otto von Bismarck, and the Italian composer Gioachino Rossini.

aachen-cathedral-german-lesson
Aachen cathedral © Ministry for Building and Transport

I had the opportunity to smell and taste these ‘miracle’ waters in Aachen. Let me tell you, it smells horrific and tastes rather unpleasant due to its high sulphur content. Aachen, incidentally, prefers not to use the prefix Bad, something to do with the alphabet...

 

 

 

To return to uncountable nouns; see, there you have an irregularity - an uncountable noun has now taken on a plural form. But it is slightly comforting to know that that it’s most common in the food and liquid categories.

 

Not breaking the rules

Consider sunshine; the plural is patently impossible – sunshines. Not happening, right? Nor is a sunshine.

There are ways of quantifying uncountable nouns:

  • a ray of sunshine; it (only) appears countable by using the preposition of which is used for; relating to, belonging to, or connected with.
  • no sunshine; no is a quantity adjective used to describe an approximate amount.
  • a little

 

Here is a quick test to see if you’ve read everything… Let me know what your score is.

 

Quick German lesson

Das Bad means bath, spa, or watering place. It is a neutral noun and the plural is die Bäder. Remember, German nouns always start with a capital.

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