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in Cambridge dictionary, [C] refers to

Countable noun: a noun that has a plural

[U] refers to

Uncountable or singular noun: a noun that has no plural.

What does [ C or U ] mean? Take this (https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/dinner) as our running example.

snippet of dinner entry

I guess that means this word could be used as Countable or Uncountable and depends on the context. However, I didn't see that in the examples in the first section.

the definitions of "dinner"

In AMERICAN DICTIONARY section, there are indeed examples marked [ U ], all of them!

the AmEng definition of "dinner"

How do I understand [ C or U ] here correctly?

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  • Do you understand what A1 refers to? For those who don't, it refers to the language level it represents. A1 describes the language proficiency according to the CEFR benchmarks, these words are among the easiest in the English language, the most frequently used, and normally the first words a learners studies.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 25, 2020 at 18:36

4 Answers 4

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Interesting question.

Many uncountable nouns can also be used as countable when a particular instance is being referred to (eg injustice, truth).

But that doesn't seem to apply here: dinner (like other meals) is usually uncountable even when it refers to a particular occasion:

They came over for dinner.

I'll do it after dinner.

I always studied after dinner.

But there are a few cases where it can be used as a countable noun. One is when talking about catering for a particular (or vague) number of people:

We've served seventy breakfasts and fifty-nine dinners today.

All the other cases I can think of are talking about particular instances, but are often optional:

During my stay, I got my dinner/dinners at The Kings Head.

I think "dinner" (uncountable) is more common here, but "dinners" is possible, treating them as separate events.

Edit: one particular case which is always plural (and hence countable) is the idiomatic exclamation: ... more [something] than you've had hot dinners!

Another is when a particular event is further qualified, as in a candlelit dinner above.

Note: I am ignoring the different meaning of dinner, as a formal dining event, usually with speeches. This is always countable.

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  • Someone might boast "He's had more girlfriends than hot dinners"
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 25, 2020 at 18:39
  • You're right, @Mari-LouA, and I thought I had mentioned that idiom; but I must have taken it out.
    – Colin Fine
    Feb 25, 2020 at 18:45
  • By all means include the idiom, it's a handy one for learners to study.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 25, 2020 at 18:50
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    @Mari-LouA: I've added it. But I've remembered why I took it out: the common case is where there is a different subject, but "had" is expressed, giving a rather difficult parse.
    – Colin Fine
    Feb 25, 2020 at 18:59
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  • [C] - Countable noun

Countable nouns are those nouns which you can count, i.e.: book, pen, coin.

  • [U] - Uncountable noun

Uncountable nouns cannot be counted, i.e.: money, flour, water.

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Countable (according to a different, clearer dictionary) means:

(of a noun) that can form a plural or be used with the indefinite article.

Therefore, there is a count example:

a romantic candlelit dinner

And the other two are non count. Cambridge just doesn’t mark each individual example for whatever reason.

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Cambridge Dictionary explains the noun dinner as:

the main meal of the day and it says that it can be used either as a countable or uncountable noun [C or U], depending on the context. What confuses you is that they didn't mark all three examples they provide separately as [C] or [U], but it is obvious which is which, because a countable noun in singular comes with an indefinite article (a dinner).

  • We were just having (our) dinner. Here, "dinner" is used as an uncountable noun (without "a")
  • a romantic candlelit dinner Here, a dinner is used as a countable noun (with "a").
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  • This answer simply restates the question, and adds a second definition which was not relevant to the question (because, as you say, that meaning is always countable). It makes no attempt to answer the question.
    – Colin Fine
    Feb 25, 2020 at 18:47
  • @ColinFine, the OP is confused about the mark [C or U], which is only at the top of the section with three sentences, but not next to each sentence provided. I'm explaining that this means that you can use "dinner" as a countable or uncountable noun - as you prefer, so it's not a predetermined thing.
    – Jan
    Feb 25, 2020 at 18:56

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