How can a noun be countable and uncountable at the same time?

For example 'shock'.

You can get a shock.

I'm suffering from __ shock.

  • 5
    They're two different sentences, so not really "at the same time" - a noun is never simultaneously both countable and uncountable. Some nouns can be either countable or uncountable depending on context, just like some words can be either a noun or a verb depending on context. Jun 30, 2021 at 16:33
  • I understand. But what has change, that 'shock' is countable in the first sentence and uncountable in the second? Jun 30, 2021 at 16:37
  • 2
    The word shock means different things in the two sentences, and sometimes a word with multiple meanings is countable in one meaning and uncountable in another. Did you look up all the possible meanings of shock?
    – stangdon
    Jun 30, 2021 at 16:41
  • Thanks for that dictionary! Now I understand the difference. Jun 30, 2021 at 16:44
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    @stangdon, even if we consider only the meaning of electric shock, it can be used as either count or non-count: "I got 3 shocks while repairing my TV", or "Electric shock is an occupational hazard for electricians".
    – The Photon
    Jul 1, 2021 at 5:22

2 Answers 2


People talk a lot about countable and uncountable nouns, but this is really a misnomer. Countability is not a property of a noun that might be similar to gender in other languages. Rather, it is a property of the sense.

Consider water. The sense that denotes the substance is uncountable: I'd like some water please; I'd like a glass of water. But the sense that denotes a packaged quantity of water is countable: I'd like an apple, a banana, and two waters, please.

Consider your example, shock. One sense denotes a discrete incident of surprise or electrical stimulation. This is countable: I touched the wire and got a shock; a tree fell in the yard, which was certainly a shock. Another sense denotes a state of mind: After the cat jumped on my head, I was in shock for a few minutes.


English can be capricious. For example, "He drank water," uses *water as an uncountable noun.

From Wikipedia: "The Meeting of Waters... is the confluence between the dark (blackwater) Rio Negro and the pale sandy-colored (whitewater) Amazon River." Here, the two rivers are two waters, i.e., countable.

More peculiar yet: "He caught ten fish, salmon," shows fish as uncountable. "He caught two fishes, a salmon and a trout," uses fish as a countable noun.

Again, "pour wine," uncountable; "serving fine wines," i.e., of different types, countable.

English Club gives more examples.

There's no accounting for the innumerable idiosyncrasies of English.

  • 2
    While I agree that English can be capricious, you're overstating the case. In most of these cases a general rule applies: if noun is uncountable, it may still be used as countable when it refers to one kind (or sometimes one instance) of the thing. This certainly accounts for your wine example. Separately, fish is not uncountable in your example. Fish can be uncountable when it refers to food ("We ate fish, cheese, and chicken" - all uncountable); but ten fish is clearly plural. The plural of fish is usually fish, though it can be fishes in some contexts.
    – Colin Fine
    Sep 10, 2021 at 19:23
  • @ColinFine, there is a rule: if the fish are of the same type, the singular form is used, of different types, the plural form. However, for "water/waters," it's not clear. "He bathed in the waters of the Amazon," is interchangeable with, "He bathed in the water of the Amazon." While other languages were being reformed to make them more self consistent (there are enforced French language laws in Canada and France, for example), English is less consistent. Sep 10, 2021 at 19:32
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    You're right that water/waters is inconsistent. Note that waters in any context (except maybe talking about different brands of bottled water) is poetic or archaic. I've no idea where you get your rule for fish from, but it doesn't match the language I've spoken natively for over 60 years. When talking about the substance used as a foodstuff (even if it is in the form of discrete bodies) we use the uncountable fish ("The fish is on the table"). When talking about more than one piscine animal, we use plural fish ("The fish are swimming upriver"), (continued ....)
    – Colin Fine
    Sep 10, 2021 at 22:37
  • ... when there is a focus on the animals as individuals, some people use the plural fishes, but I don't think I ever use it except in a couple of fixed phrases. And you're right that some governments over the ages have attempted to legislate about language: apart from writing (which is an invented technology that must be laboriously learnt by every reader/writer, and so utterly different from genuine human language) they have rarely had much success.
    – Colin Fine
    Sep 10, 2021 at 22:41
  • "ten fish" does not show "fish" to be uncountable; on the contrary, it applies a count of "ten" to it. Rather, it shows that the plural of fish is irregular. Lest you doubt that "fish" can serve as the plural form, consider "the two smaller fish in that photograph are minnows."
    – phoog
    Sep 16, 2022 at 8:36

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