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Questions:

(a) In a clear context, especially when telling the listener that there are types or versions of it, any uncountable noun can actually be counted, no matter what the uncountable noun is, like, it can be a mass noun, an abstract noun, or a liquid, or whatever, you name it. Is this idea correct?

(b) Uncountable nouns can be counted when talking about how many servings. Is this right, too?

Examples I came up with for my question (a):

(1) Today, I am going to introduce you guys three happinesses. The first one is ....

(2) Do you know there are three insanities? You don't know? Let me explain ...

(3) There are two approvals in this office. The first type is... and the second one is....

(4) This store provides funitures. Chairs, tables, you name it.

(5) This website give me informations! Sports, games, and many!

(6) Today she gave me a humor. Let me say it more clearly. It is a humor that I heard and then bursted out laughing.

Example I came up with for my question (b):

(7) In this magical world, you can buy happiness, yes literally. Look, that guy out there is buying three happinesses from that shop. And you can sell your happiness, too. How many do you have?

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    Subject-verb agreement: "this website gives...." The past tense of "burst" is "burst."
    – phoog
    Jul 13, 2020 at 4:10

1 Answer 1

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Countability is not really an intrinsic property of a noun. It is a property of a sense.

For example, "milk," when it refers to the liquid, is uncountable. This is true of most liquids (water, beer, etc.). But these words become countable when they are used to refer to servings or containers ("I'll have one skim milk, two chocolate milks, four beers and seven waters"). They are also countable when they refer to varieties ("I like several different beers, but this is not one of them").

Examples 1 through 3 are reasonable, and "approval" could also be countable in the sense of "act or instance": the manager approved my leave request and that of my colleague. These approvals were processed yesterday.

Examples 4 and 5 are wrong: we wouldn't say "furnitures" or "informations" to mean "kinds of furniture" or "kinds of information."

Example 6 just doesn't make sense, and example 7 is a bit odd: it sounds like it might come from a fantasy novel or a dystopian work along the lines of 1984 or Brave New World. Since you mention a "magical world," though, perhaps that is the intention, in which case it is fine.

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  • Thank you for your answer. When the uncountable nouns become countable, for example, like the ones in my examples, can they be used with "these", "those", "a few", etc and just function like a normal countable noun in its plural form such as "dogs", "cats", and "buses"?
    – vincentlin
    Jul 13, 2020 at 6:46
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    Joys and sorrows are easily counted. Happiness and sadness aren't. Words like "furniture" and "information", and also "software" and "equipment", are strictly uncountable -- there is no countable sense that could make any sense. The countable sense of "humor" happens to be "bodily fluid". Jul 13, 2020 at 14:15
  • Thanks, I was also wondering whether different words have different senses of countability. Some seem to be very strict, which has been confirmed by you. Thanks for bringing up "joy", "sorrow" and other cases. So if an uncountable word has been counted or, in other words, pluralized in a sentence, it functions like a normal countable noun in its plural form and can be used with "these", "those", and followed by a plural verb in terms of subject-verb agreement, am I correct?
    – vincentlin
    Jul 13, 2020 at 16:29

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