I was doing 'articles' exercise on the web. I found this sentence,

Ben has a terrible headache.

Why 'a' is used here. The terrible headache is not a countable noun. Thus, 'a' should not be used here. I feel the correct sentence is "Ben has terrible headache." However, the correct answer is the following: "Ben has a terrible headache."

I am confused. Please do help me.

Can I say, "I had headache."?


5 Answers 5


Actually, headache is a countable noun.

So you should say, I had a headache, not I had headache.

Most dictionaries give the definitions without saying anything about a noun being countable or uncountable. However, some dictionaries do. To check the countability of a noun online, I recommend Macmillan Dictionary and Collins Dictionaries.

  • 3
    I'm glad you said this. I also don't understand why anyone thinks "headache" would not be countable. Last week, I had a headache on Monday, on Thursday, and on Friday. I had three headaches last week.
    – J.R.
    Jan 29, 2014 at 18:38
  • 2
    @JR - because English isn't consistent (at least in British English). In BE we say: I had a headache; I had stomach ache; I had earache. I believe that in AE (but I'm no expert), one can say "...a stomach ache" etc. Sep 29, 2018 at 10:16

Why is a headache not countable?

She has migraine. That means she suffers from terrible headaches.

In general, we have an ache, whether that is a toothache, headache or heartache.

As I am writing this, however, I do understand your question. In my mother tongue (Dutch) we would not use the article - unless to give special emphasis (I have such a headache that I cannot work).

  • I understand the difficulty for English language learners, too. It's the same in German; there is no article. Ich habe Kopfweh.
    – Babs
    Jan 29, 2014 at 12:15

Yes, "a terrible headache" is the proper way to say it — but...

Yes, saying "I had headache" could be correct, depending upon the setting.

Strictly speaking, "headache" is a countable noun because "ache" is a countable noun. Here's an easy test: can you have plural "headaches" or plural "aches?" Of course.

You can have a tension headache today, a sinus headache tomorrow, and a migraine the next day. Those are three very different headaches, and any doctor would use the plural to say that you "suffer from headaches." The word "headache" refers to each specific incidence, not a general condition like asthma. Since you can have both singular and plural headache(s), you have a countable noun.

(Asthma, on the other hand is uncountable. You don't have an asthma today and an asthma tomorrow. You have an attack of your asthma condition.)

Why are some illnesses countable and others uncountable? Because English is weird. Don't ask why, just proceed. Some things in life are a mystery.

Since "headache(s)" is countable, Ben does have a terrible headache. If we're being proper.

There is, however, a difference between proper English and correct English.

Proper English follows all the rules, but English is correct if the speaker makes their meaning clear. (Right there, for example, I used "their" as a singular pronoun, but there is no ambiguity about my meaning. It may not be proper grammar, but it is a correct usage because the meaning is clear.)

A great example is "nauseous/nauseated." If I looked ill and said that I was feeling nauseous, you would understand that I felt like I was going to vomit. I said I felt badly, and you understood me, so what I said was correct. But to be proper, I should have said that I felt nauseated. You would have understood me, either way, so both words were correct, but only one was proper.

Just keep it appropriate to the setting. In normal conversation, don't stress about whether it's proper; just make sure you are understood. Be concerned about proper grammar when you write or have tea with the Queen. Remember, different regions and dialects are full of little oddities, and that's part of what makes English interesting.

If you treat "headache" as an uncountable noun in casual conversation, people will generally understand you.

So "I've got headache" can be correct, even if it isn't proper.


Actually speaking as an American who has been as properly educated as possible; it is proper to use the article, so we would say

"I have a headache."

It is not a matter of possession such as saying

"I have money in my purse"

It is more a simple description of what we might be suffering from for example

I have a stomachache

I have a broken arm

I have a headache

. Though these days, I've seen American English used quite badly in some of the commercials on TV, as in one that is shown to describe the medicine Botox which is used lately for those suffering from chronic migraine headaches.) I hope this is helpful.


Both are wrong. You don't have headache. You suffer from headache! Headache/diarrhoea other sickness are not something that you can eat or have in possession. You do not catch/ caught disease, diseases is the one that caught you! So you suffer from sickness. Diseases is not part of your body or something that you can keep with you or your belongings.

  • 1
    This sounds plausible enough, except that it doesn't match actual native English usage in the slightest. English does treat diseases and ailments as things you can catch or have. Oct 30, 2018 at 14:44

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