Count and Non-count Nouns

• There are three categories of nouns: count, non-count, and proper. The distinction between count and non-count is fundamentally grammatical: count nouns have plural forms and can be preceded by both definite and indefinite articles; non-count nouns do not have plural forms and can be preceded only by definite articles.

- Despite being strictly grammatical, the count / non-count distinction is influenced by semantic considerations which must be explicated, especially in pedagogical contexts: Generally speaking count nouns refer to concrete, discrete things — in other words, to things which can be seen and touched and which have definite boundaries and are therefore measurable and countable. Count nouns such as table and chair belong to this category. Typical non-count nouns fall into two different categories: First, those that refer to substances which, although concrete, are regarded as undifferentiated masses and which, therefore, cannot be counted. gold, air, and butter are examples. The second category contains nouns which refer to abstract (i.e. non-concrete) things that can not be seen, touched, or counted. love, happiness, cruelty, and pain are examples.

• The correlation between the count / non-count distinction and these semantic categories is not a strict one however.

• The most obvious way in which the semantic distinctions fail to match the grammatical one is this: there are many abstract count nouns; situation and remark are examples. Unlike abstract non-count nouns such as music and happiness, abstract count nouns are used to refer to things which, even though they are abstract, occupy a particular period of time or a particular space and therefore do have somewhat definite boundaries, a fact which can be seen as an explanation of their “count” status. This explanation has limited value however because there are many common non-count nouns which refer to similar “semi-bounded” things; for example advice, information, business. (When the need is felt to use these nouns to refer to a particular “thing” with more or less definite boundaries, a “partitive” construction is used, for example, a piece of information or a bit of business.)

• Another difficulty to be faced by any attempt to describe the count / non-count distinction in semantic terms is the fact that there are non-count nouns which refer to things that are straightfowardly both concrete and discrete, for example, furniture, equipment, and luggage . The “rationale” behind this apparent anomaly seems to be this: the noun, furniture, for example, is used to refer to discrete objects like tables and chairs as if they formed an undifferentiated mass.

• Just as a shift from discrete object to undifferentiated mass (and from count noun to non-count) can be made with words such as furniture and equipment a shift from undifferentiated to discrete (and from non-count to count) can sometimes be made by a process known as “reclassification”: There are two types: The first is quality reclassification; for example, instead of using a partitive and referring to types of cheese we can simply refer to cheeses; the second type is quantity reclassification: non-count nouns, and in particular those referring to common drinks are reclassified as count-nouns referring, for example, to a container filled with the liquid, for example, “Would you like a coffee.?” “No, I’d rather have a beer.”