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Sometimes in English I encounter words which are uncountable, while they may be countable in my native language causing some mistakes in my sentences, and I wonder why they are uncountable.

For example "software"; we look at any application, *a software (as it is used by software companies)

*I developed a software

*It is a software to edit pictures

Or "advice", it could be countable too, pointing to any useful sentence or point one could say:

*That was a good advice

*As a friendly advice

*There were many good advices in this story to learn

Or "information". Now, I can't remember, but you may count more such words, if you have a problem with them.

I know the following is grammatical in English:

  1. a piece of software
  2. a piece of advice
  3. a piece of information

but in these cases piece just looks redundant. One day, could "piece" be omitted, and these uncountable nouns become countable? Why are "advice" and "information" uncountable when in many Romance languages they are not?

I'd like some information about train times please.

Although 'information' is countable in many languages, it is uncountable in English. (British Council)

  • Do you know words which were once uncountable but later become countable?

  • I would like to understand why some nouns are uncountable in English while in other languages they are not.
  • My advice (I'm a non-native speaker): Don't bother to ask why. Just keep aligning the words with their senses in your mind until their senses are natural to you. Give special care to the uses that surprise you (because they interfere with your first language). The concept of abstract vs. concrete nouns may be helpful. – Damkerng T. Aug 1 '15 at 7:28
  • @DamkerngT. Good advice, I may understand situations where they could be uncountable, but I wish at least they were both countable and uncountable – Ahmad Aug 1 '15 at 7:33
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Note that you can't use 'a' with an uncountable noun - 'a' means, and is even originally derived from 'one'. Also, most of the uncountable nouns you mention have countable synonyms: you could replace 'software' with 'program', 'advice' with 'recommendation'.

As for your last question - language is always in fluctuation, so we'll never be able to tell whether that would be the case.

  • Do you remember any words which once was uncountable but then countable – Ahmad Aug 1 '15 at 7:17
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If something looks redundant in your language does not mean that it does in another language. That's just the way things are. Different languages work differently. I don't think I need to elaborate on this point any further. If you really want to get to the root of the why behind why some nouns in English are countable and some are uncountable, then, I think, you really need to go and study a branch of linguistics called etymology which studies the origin of words and their usage.

Now, on to answering the actual question. Think of the word milk as it's commonly used in English. It's aways uncountable because it represents a white, contiguous, shapeless mass produced by the mammary glands of cows and other mammals. In proper English grammar, you just can't say milks. Period! That's how English works! If you want to quantify it, you have to say something like a glass of milk or a gallon of milk (hope you wouldn't argue with that?). But I can picture a situation when people might say milks as a way to talk about different brands of milk available in supermarkets (the same holds true for other typically uncountable nouns like water--people do say a water sometimes). But that's what we call casual speech. It exists in many languages when people intentionally break the rules of grammar to either make whatever they're saying sound shorter or make a point clearer.

Roughly the same can be said for nouns like software, advice and information. Software essentially is just computer code in the form of ones and zeros. Speaking from my experience of reading computer books, to say a software just sounds patently wrong. The Apache Web Server is an excellent piece of software is how it should be said. Advice can be countable though, but in that case the meaning of the word changes (it means something different).

To be perfectly honest, it all depends on a lot of factors. There really don't exist any hard and fast rules to break this all down into something that we could use as an aid to help us with definitive assuredness say this word, for example, is always uncountable, but that one is not. You have to know how articles are used with each and every noun you learn. That's all I can say. Does all that make sense to you?

  • 1
    Thank you. Concepts are usually common in different languages. We also don't say "a milk" in Persian because it doesn't make sense. I think we also don't say "a information" without using a unit like "piece", but we say sometimes "informations" when the amount of information is high. We also say "let me give you an advice" to focus on the main point made by a sentence, something like "a recommendation". The question would be if "advice" and "recommendation" are synonyms then why one is countable and the other is not. – Ahmad Jan 8 '17 at 11:34
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As far as I know some nouns can be sorted as countable and uncountable at the same time usually by a change of meaning.

  • hair

    (C) There are two hairs in my pizza. but
    (Un) I don't have much hair.

  • light

    (C) There are two lights in the bathroom. but
    (Un) Close the window! There is too much light.

  • noise

    (C) There are so many different noises in the town. but
    (Un) it is difficult to study when there is so much noise.

And this is a grammar rule.

Paper, time, room, and work can be countable and uncountable too.

Drinks (Tea, orange juice etc..) are usually uncountable, but if we talk about a glass or a cup in a cafe for an example: Two teas and a coffee, please!

EDIT

Advice is sorted as uncountable noun, so as you know we use piece of... (How many pieces of advice...?) But we can use other words such as: suggestions, recommendations and so on.

How many suggestions/recommendations...?

Just because advice doesn't have a plural form.

  • "Drinks are usually uncountable", thank you, I was needing an excuse for last night. – Peter Jan 8 '17 at 12:08
  • @Peter sorry, my bad re-read the answer to get what I meant. . – CatfishFTW Jan 8 '17 at 12:16
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Middle English informacion, enformation, etc. was borrowed from Anglo-Norman, from Old-French. I'm not sure how exactly it could have went down, but compare German Schal "scarf", which was borrowed from Persian, via French or English, and does not in common language have a plural, in my experience, although Lexika are eager to define it, which is not readily acceptable because it clashes with Schalen "pots, peels", plural of Schale (cp. also Pudel "poodel", plural non existent or irregular). Those aren't even pluraletantumaes, but just lexical quirks. I observe that modern French doesn't pronounce its plural -s; I don't know about Anglo-Norman, which heavily influenced French, too.

software is basically an adjective, that can be nominalized, the software (program) vs hardware-(program). ware didn't have a plural -s since Old English anyhow, and perhaps derives from an adjective or verb (cp. beware), where at least the adjective wouldn't have plural inflection. In Old English it did have a plural form "ware, wara", though. Cp. Ger. wehr- "war-", wahr "true", En. wer "man", wergeld "bloodmoney (in Germanic law), compensation for death of a man", Ger. Vergeltung "revenge" (superficially ver- "en-, de-" + gelten "count, be valid"). The latter two are so close, which shows that morphemes may be subject to reinterpretation.

advices is perfectly fine with me, but might be too close to vices for a prudent Englishman of faith. You might say vice also exists in the singular and doesn't prohibit advice, sure, but simply speaking vices is much more common, and in detail, it may be understood as abstraction, not just a simple plural, and a vice is an instance of that (note, "that" not "those"). We call that abstraction the marked form I believe. Such abstraction from plural forms is common in other languages, too. In a sense, information is now also an abstraction, with singular info and plural infos. Compare also data, which is a Latin plural from datum; date which came a different way through Old French; German pluraletantum Daten, singular instance Datei, pl. "Dateien" (likely French again, perhaps via Dutch or Belgian administration speak).

-ation is abstract in other cases, too: intonation, duration, etc. so information was likely reinterpreted as the result of the action to inform. Since to inform has no plural, information doesn't either. There's many ways to go about this, one way is to see that "informations" has been picked up by dictionaries, although marked "uncommon".

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