One Fish, Two Fish: Teaching about Count and Noncount Nouns

Many recent posts on this blog have dealt with teaching advanced students. This term, I want to focus on activities and topics that are especially useful for the middle levels — at Language ETC, roughly Levels 1, 2, and 3. If you have ideas or want to write a post, please get in touch!

By Cathy Sunshine

ESL students seem to like learning nouns. Maybe it’s because nouns, as a group, are finite and knowable. They’re much more user-friendly than verbs, with their endless tenses, or those pesky prepositions. Count and noncount nouns come up early in the study of English. Our students first meet them in Ventures Level 1.

Distinguishing between count and noncount nouns is just the first step.  It gets more challenging when you introduce the rules for partitives (much, many, some, any, and all the specific partitives like a gallon of, a pound of, and so forth) . Here are eight basic rules for teaching and learning about count and noncount nouns.

1. A count noun can be made plural.                

Most English nouns are like this. They refer to separate things that you can count. They can be either singular (an egg) or plural (eggs). The plural is usually made with “s” or “es,” but some common verbs have irregular plurals.

a student         two students 
one tooth         all my teeth
one fish            two fish
the child          many children

One_fish2. A noncount noun cannot be made plural.

A smaller number of nouns are noncount nouns, sometimes called mass nouns. You can’t count them, and you can’t make them plural: you can have fun at a party, but you can’t have two funs. Noncount nouns always take a singular verb, even when the meaning is plural. Luggage can include several suitcases, but you still say the luggage is in the car.

Most noncount nouns fall into one of the following categories:

  • Abstractions: advice, courage, fun, help, honesty, information, intelligence (but note that some abstractions like thought, idea, plan, and problem are count nouns)
  • Activities: homework, housework, music, soccer, exercise
  • Food: beef, bread, butter, sugar, oil, macaroni, meat
  • Gases: air, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, pollution, smog, smoke, steam
  • Groups of similar items: baggage, clothing, furniture, equipment, money
  • Liquids: blood, coffee, gasoline, milk, oil, soup, tea, water, wine
  • Natural events: electricity, heat, humidity, rain, snow, sunshine, weather
  • Materials: aluminum, chalk, cloth, concrete, cotton, glue, lumber, wood, wool
  • Particles or grains: corn, dirt, dust, flour, hair, pepper, rice, salt, sugar, wheat

Information is worth noting because in Spanish and French it’s commonly used in the plural, las informaciones or les informations. Students will often say “informations” in English, which is never correct. Information is always singular. So is news.

computer-too-much-informatiSo far, so good. Two clear rules that students can grasp. But it wouldn’t be English if it were simple! The third rule muddles the picture:

3. Many nouns can be either count or noncount, depending on the meaning and context.

For example:

I love chocolate cake. (Here cake is a noncount noun because it refers to cake in general.)

My mother baked two cakes for the party. (Here it’s a count noun because it refers to specific, individual cakes.)

She has curly hair. (Hair is a noncount noun when it refers to the mass of hair on someone’s head.)

Waiter, there’s a hair in my soup. (It’s a count noun when it’s one or more individual strands of hair.)

4. You can make noncount nouns into count nouns by including a word for weight, volume, form, or the container that holds the item.

Rice is a staple food in many parts of Asia. (Rice, in a general sense, is uncountable.)

Please buy two bags of rice at the store. (When we talk about bags of rice, we can count them.)

Here are some useful quantity and container words:

a head of lettuce                                a stick of butter
a dozen eggs (careful, no “of”)         a bag of potato chips
a carton of orange juice                    a bottle of wine
a jar of jam                                         a can of soup
a cup of tea                                         a drop of blood
a glass of water                                  a pitcher of lemonade
a six-pack of beer                              a pound of hamburger
an ounce of gold                                 a liter of oil
a tube of toothpaste                          a pack of cigarettes
a roll of toilet paper                           a bar of soap
a box of spaghetti                              a gallon of gasoline
a quart of milk                                   a scoop of ice cream

Containers

5. A and an are used only with singular count nouns. You don’t use an indefinite article with noncount nouns.

I need a dollar. (count)
I need money. (noncount)

6. Many is used only with plural count nouns. Much is used only with noncount nouns.

How many eggs do you want? (count)
How much milk should I buy? (noncount)

7. A few is used only with count nouns. A little is used only with noncount nouns.

There are only a few crackers left in the box. (count)
There is only a little wine left in the bottle. (noncount)

8. The following terms can be used with BOTH count and noncount nouns: a lot of (or lots of), plenty of, enough, some, any, no.

There are lots of mosquitoes in our backyard. (count)
We had a lot of rain last summer. (noncount)

There are plenty of plates and glasses in the kitchen. (count)
Since I walk to work, I get plenty of exercise. (noncount)

The school has enough books for everyone. (count)
I don’t have enough strength to move that desk by myself. (noncount)

Would you like some cookies? (count)
Would you like some lemonade? (noncount)

Do you have any job openings? (count)
I don’t have to do any work today. (noncount)

Remind students that any is only used with questions and negative statements.

There are no reports about the accident. (count)
I have no information about the accident. (noncount)

Suggested Activities

Since some of the most common noncount nouns are food words, lessons about shopping and nutrition can be used to teach about count and noncount nouns. You can use pictures clipped from supermarket ads or printed from the Internet, or the plastic foods available in the volunteer lounge.

  • Divide students into two or three teams. Announce a noncount noun, like soup, and write it on the board. Give the teams one minute to write down on paper as many appropriate partitive words as they can think of (a can of soup, a bowl of soup, a spoonful of soup, etc.). Then have each team read out their words, while you write the phrases on the board. Give 1 point for each correct phrase. Repeat with another noncount noun, continuing for as many rounds as you wish. The team with the most points wins.
  • Divide students into two groups: shoppers and grocery clerks. One teacher works with the shoppers to make a list of foods to buy. Make sure the students specify a quantity of each item, such as a gallon of milk, two loaves of bread, or a pound of onions. The other teacher works with the clerks to set up the “store” with real foods, plastic foods, or pictures of foods. Next, the shoppers take their list to the store and have a conversation with the clerks: “Do you have any bread?” “Yes, how many loaves do you want?” “Two loaves.” “Do you have any milk?” “Yes, how much do you want?” “A gallon.” The clerks hand over the foods. The challenge here will be the correct use of how many and how much with count and noncount nouns, respectively. It may help to write the phrases on the board for students to refer to during the activity.
  • Divide students into pairs. Each pair chooses what kind of party they want to plan — a dinner party, birthday party, or quinceañera, for example. The partners then make a shopping list for their event, including foods, decorations, and whatever else they may need. Make sure the lists include specific quantities, such as two dozen eggs. Finally, each pair shares the plans for their event and their shopping list with the class.

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