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Not all the time I have access to dictionaries. In school, I learned that abstract nouns are not countable; however, English is an ever-evolving language and nothing can be so certain here including abstract nouns that are countable. Experts are of only one opinion – it depends on the context!

Now, when it comes to certain nouns, I'm not sure how do natives guess them countable/uncountable. As a non-native speaker, it's difficult for me.

Say – equipment! Now, for a non-native like me, equipment is certainly countable! Equipment for this and that...so two equipments. But then, I'm wrong! I can still guess mood or freedom to be countable - mood of romance, mood of dullness – there is more than one mood so ‘moods’. Likewise, freedom of speech, freedom of roaming here and there - so there's more than one freedom – freedoms!

Is there any way to guess whether a noun is countable? Especially in those cases where I haven't any access to a dictionary. Is there any trick– like I found those tricks for freedom/mood.?

  • In school, I learned that abstract nouns are not countable - that is not true. It seems to be a common lesson in some schools, but it is absolutely not the case. For example, thought is definitely abstract, but you can have a thought, or two thoughts, or three thoughts, etc. "Concrete" and "abstract" are just philosophical ideas; they don't have any grammatical effect. – stangdon Jul 26 '18 at 19:44
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In general, nouns can be divided into abstract concepts and real-world (concrete) objects. Furthermore nouns can be divided into things measured by quantity or degree, and things measured by number.

As a rough principle, abstract concepts (like love or peace) and nouns measurable by quantity (like water or sand) tend to be uncountable by default. Meanwhile, concrete nouns measured by number (like lions or buildings) are usually countable.

Unfortunately there are far too many exceptions to this to make it completely reliable. For example, one can have many loves in one's life. Fish can be counted by individual animals, or by some uncountable amount of weight or volume ("a full net of fish").

What does seem to work, at least with some consistency, is to find the closest synonymous noun that you know to be countable or uncountable, and use that as a guide. For example, let's say you come across a nifty noun like senescence, which means "the deterioration that comes with age". It's an abstract concept, and probably measured by degree, so you can tentatively assume it to be uncountable. Since you also know that the relatively similar noun crazy is uncountable, you can be pretty sure that senescence is also uncountable. Example:

Even as the greedy king's aging body slipped into senescence and decrepitude, his desire for more life burned ever hotter.

As a counter-example, take an abstract noun like plutocracy ("government by the rich"). Yes, it is abstract, but at the same time you know the noun government is both countable and uncountable. You would not be wrong to assume that plutocracy is the same -- countable when referring to specific instances:

With the current state of campaign finance laws, it would not be an exaggeration to call our current system of government a plutocracy (by proxy), rather than a republic.

And uncountable when referring to the abstract concept:

Plutocracy is the default state of any government that lacks a strong national Constitution.

Your examples mood and freedom can be determined the same way. Mood is like feeling, while freedom is like value. Feeling and value are both countable and uncountable, so you can tacitly assume mood and freedom are the same.

Specific instance:

Mom is in a good mood today.

Yoga gives me a freedom of movement that I don't get from other kinds of exercise.

Abstract concept:

The other captains say that whether you can make it through the Devil's Triangle is entirely up to mood and chance.

What good is bread without freedom?

Nevertheless, because there are so many irregularities, you're likely to have to memorize more than a few, and be corrected when you make mistakes. Even native speakers learn these by reading, remembering, and regurgitating.

For example, suppose I ask you to go to the store with a shopping list on which is "steak". You need to go to the butcher and ask for steak, and you know meat is uncountable, so you assume steak is also -- until you hear the person ahead of you ask for "three large steaks". So you assume it's countable. Then the butcher asks you "how much steak" you want and you realize it can be either, depending on whether you are measuring by weight or by number of portions.

Now you have steak in your set of known nouns, so if you come across another meat-related noun like brisket, you can assume it's similarly uncountable when measured by weight

I need three pounds of brisket for this recipe.

and possibly countable by portion

Dad always cooks a brisket for Sunday dinner.

(Edit) To be clear, when native speakers first encounter a new noun, it's with enough context to specify it as countable or uncountable. Again, to pull out a fairly esoteric example, replevin, a legal term meaning "a procedure to recover unlawfully seized property". Few (if any) who haven't been to law school will know or need this term -- but those who have, will have seen it in context written something like

the law and practice of replevin

or

a writ of replevin

and this is how they will use it, as a phrase rather than a stand-alone term. They wouldn't say "a replevin" or "replevins" -- even if they dictionary says it's OK -- until they see someone else us it that way.

  • wow! +1 as it contains many new words and tries to answer my question. However, I think freedom in your last example has nothing to do with count. The definite article is above all those rules! – Maulik V Jul 25 '18 at 8:22
  • @MaulikV You're right. I'll try to think of a different example. – Andrew Jul 25 '18 at 14:11
  • @Mari-LouA Unfortunately, as much as I tried to think of some overarching principle, I found none seemed consistent. The only one that seems to work -- and, I think, how native speakers learn -- is to compare with a set "known nouns". There's always something -- the synonym for advice is help. You know we don't say "two helps", so in the same way you can assume we wouldn't say "two advices". – Andrew Jul 25 '18 at 14:20
  • @Mari-LouA Of course this only goes so far. Suppose I ask you to go to the store with a shopping list on which is "steak". You need to go to the butcher and ask for steak, but you don't know if you should ask for some quantity of steak or some number of steaks. You know meat is uncountable, so you assume steak is also -- until you hear the person ahead of you ask for "three large steaks". So you assume it's countable. Then the butcher asks you "how much steak" you want (by weight) and you realize it's both, depending on how you use it. – Andrew Jul 25 '18 at 14:24
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    @Andrew Thanks, I think the revised text is much clearer. – choster Jul 25 '18 at 16:20
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Fluent native speakers like me don't guess.  We simply know, usually with little idea how or why we know. 

Equipment, software, information, advice -- these words simply have no countable meaning in the hidden recesses of my mind.  They represent stuff.  Tools, programs, messages, suggestions -- these are words that imply numbers as soon as they spring to mind.  They represent things.  And yet, these two lists contain otherwise reasonable synonyms. 

The word "freedom" presents an even greater challenge.  Phrases like "freedom of speech" and "freedom of the press" directly exhibit an uncountable sense of the word.  That doesn't prevent us from collecting them and calling them "these freedoms".  The word can represent either countable things or uncountable stuff. 

I'd love to give you a simple heuristic.  I don't have one.  I can't think of any rule of thumb that covers enough cases to be useful.  Case-by-case seems to be the only effective basis for learning what counts as stuff rather than things

  • This is very true, and something which I wished I had included in my answer. Native speakers don't guess, they instinctively know if they can place a number in front of a noun. So we can say "two apples" with no problem but many would hesitate at the thought of saying "two fruits" (although not technically wrong). – Mari-Lou A Jul 25 '18 at 16:40
  • @Mari-LouA "Hesitate" seems a bit strong - "two fruits" doesn't sound wrong, it just sounds unnaturally vague. Then there's the alternative "pieces of fruit", though that usually has the implication of a single fruit being cut up into pieces, rather than two individual fruits. – Alexander Jul 25 '18 at 17:09
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    @Alexander "two types of fruit" would be my preferred choice. And I did say hesitate not "reject" – Mari-Lou A Jul 25 '18 at 17:17
  • @Mari-LouA Ah, didn't think about "two types". I was thinking solely on two of the same kind of fruit (i.e. "two apples"). – Alexander Jul 25 '18 at 17:39
  • It's perfectly natural for me to have three fruits in a salad. If you ask me which ones I prefer, I'm likely to answer with the uncountable examples of "apple, orange and banana". And that helps illustrate my point. I normally make these count/non-count distinctions instinctively, and only realize after the fact (if I realize it at all) that there even was a distinction that could be considered. – Gary Botnovcan Jul 25 '18 at 18:08
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This is a good question, but I do not know of any trick. Your best bet is to type up a list of the most common uncountable (mass) nouns and learn them off by heart.

(UPDATE)

HANDY TIP

There is one "trick" worth learning that will help identify some (only some) uncountable nouns. CATEGORIES

  • Cutlery/flatware (uncountable) consists of knives, forks, spoons, and teaspoons (countable).
  • Equipment will encompass any type of apparatus or tool. e.g. ab benches, treadmills, kettle bells, etc. (gym equipment). Hammers, screwdrivers, power drills, box cutters, etc. (DIY)
  • Furniture (uncountable) includes chairs, tables, beds, closets, wardrobes, etc. (countable)

  • Luggage (Uncountable) is the collective term for all travelling bags, suitcases, rucksacks/backpacks, carry-ons, trunks, etc.

  • Jewellery (uncountable) items which can be classified as such are: necklaces, earrings, bracelets, rings, gold chains, tiaras, broaches, etc. (countable)

  • Software (uncountable) includes computer programmes (countable).

Here are a few uncountable concrete nouns, some of which are easily identifiable as categories

blood, baggage, clothing, cutlery, flatware, equipment, footwear, furniture, jewellery/jewelry, luggage, machinery, money, trash, softwear, tableware, and underwear

However, I want to emphasize that the tip described above is by no means foolproof. Not all category nouns are uncountable. And not all uncountable nouns are categories. The tip would be of little use in this short list of uncountable abstract nouns.

courage, music, evidence, happiness, truth, darkness, humour, knowledge, pollution, progress, information, etc.

Consider, advice, which is nearly always uncountable in English but always countable in many romance languages e.g. Italian. What to do? You have to learn it, and one way of doing that is by writing some example sentences (the Oxford Dictionary online and foboko.com provide examples if you can't think of any).

I need a piece of advice
She had three pieces of advice for women aspiring to senior roles
She gave me loads / lots of helpful advice
His advice was terrible
Following their advice, I started to eliminate dairy products from my diet
Do you have any advice about…?

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    Right. and I note pieces of equipment, not equipments. – Lambie Jul 25 '18 at 16:27

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