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I just asked some question and I have another one and this one is more unsettling to me than the previous one. So, how can you tell which nouns are countable and uncountable?

I understand you cannot count sugar, bread, coffee, cheese, sheep and things like that. But what about some nouns like decision, approval, disapproval, disgrace, judgment and things like that.

Decision is a countable noun if it means "a choice" or "a judgment", but words like approval can only be a singular or an uncountable noun. I mean, is there any set rule for this or do I have to just memorize as I go?

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Wait. Did you just say one cannot count sheep? Seriously? How do you fall asleep? Also, have you never ordered two coffees or bought two breads? Anyway. You can even count cheeses and waters alright. So yes. Memorize it. (And seriously: just because the plural of sheep is sheep, doesn't mean it is a mass noun. I just can't get past that one...) –  ЯegDwight Sep 9 '13 at 23:19
    
This looks like it belongs on English Language Learners. You have a fundamental misunderstanding of what a "countable" noun is. All of the examples in the first group you gave are in fact countable. –  Jacobm001 Sep 9 '13 at 23:30
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Well, this is not my idea. I got that from UPenn's website. It says, "In Spanish, for example, it’s possible to “count” bread or to use the word “bread” in the plural (pan, panes). In English, that’s not possible (in normal usage). To speak of plural bread, you must say loaves of bread. (Note: uncountable nouns are sometimes called noncount nouns. Concrete uncountable nouns, such as sugar, coffee and cheese are sometimes called mass nouns.)" –  MrLee Sep 9 '13 at 23:44
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Also, some dictionaries will tell you whether a noun is countable. –  TrevorD Sep 9 '13 at 23:48
    
And yea, I say 'one water please' and 'two sugars' all the time. So, this is really confusing me. And please be respectful. I know you guys hate English learners but we just didn't have the chance to learn English from the ground up like you guys. I never even spoke one word in English until I was 21. –  MrLee Sep 9 '13 at 23:49

3 Answers 3

There is little to memorize about this topic; your intuition should be enough. But do memorize these two things:

  1. Countable nouns can be changed into uncountable nouns:

    • She fed the baby a teaspoon of apple.
    • Blend the slices of mango in a mixer to turn them into juice.

    Uncountable nouns can be changed into countable nouns:

    • There are several new butters being produced without milk.
    • Can I have two sugars, please?
  2. You can have a noun being treated as both collective and singular in the same sentence (George Yule, Explaining English Grammar. Oxford, 1998):

    • The family HAS decided THEY can't afford a big wedding.
    • The audience WAS cheering and clapping THEIR hands.
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+1 This is a good summary of how there is no set "rule" for countability in English. @MrLee, you might want to read this question (english.stackexchange.com/questions/114865/…) and other questions that relate to countable...some things in English are better learned by "feel" than by rule. –  JeffSahol Sep 10 '13 at 0:51
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Makes no wiser on the question at hand, though. –  Kris Sep 10 '13 at 6:23

Bread is one of those words which can be both countable and uncountable.

Countable, for example: "This bakery stocks many types of bread. Three of our breads are based on sourdough. Many breads are gluten free."

Uncountable, for example: "The school group will need to be fed at lunchtime. Perhaps we should bring plenty of bread." (Note: NOT "lots of loaves of bread", which is possible but different.)

The countable/uncountable distinction is necessary when choosing whether to use "much" or "many". "Much" is used when the concept of the noun is its uncountable form; "Many" is used when the concept is discrete and countable.

"Too much bread goes mouldy if the humidity is too high"
"Many of our breads may contain traces of nuts."

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Instead of asking: Is x a countable or an uncountable noun?, you might be better off asking: Is x countable or uncountable in the context in which I wish to use it?

So, for example, approval functions grammatically as an uncountable noun here:

You need approval to build a house.

But in this headline from the Daily Telegraph (30 August 2013), it functions as a countable noun:

Mortgage approvals jump to highest level in over five years.

Even a noun such as computer, which in most contexts will be countable, can function as an uncountable noun:

That's not much computer for the price.

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