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misty123's avatar

English question about singular countable nouns and countable nouns?

Asked by misty123 (290 points ) May 28th, 2013

I am quite confused about the usage of countable nouns and singular countable nouns. I would like to know about their usages.
I will try to explain those with some examples.
1. Knowledge: In dictionaries the type of noun is given as uncountable and singular.

It can be singular in following instances:A strong knowledge of computer or a knowledge of carpentry. Actually, we can’t measure knowledge – 1 knowledge, 2 knowledge, etc.

Let’s take another example: life or work

Life: Per dictionary, it’s an uncountable noun as well as a countable noun. But, I have heard lots of people saying, you are living a good life. If you set this example against the first one, then you can see the difference. Life is countable, and we can use an indefinite article and knowledge is a singular noun and we can use an indefinite article.

1. You are living a good life. After contemplating it more, I am now assuming we can use an indefinite article if it is a countable or singular countable noun. But, if we consider work, it is more used as an uncountable noun. Sometimes it is used as a countable noun too. If it is used as a countable noun, then why can’t we say –

1. You are doing a good work.

However, we can say “a work in progress”.

Similarly, with “fruit” and “food” -Give me a fruit or give me fruit or give me some fruits.Can someone elucidate the difference to me? Or Should I have to check their usages before using them in sentences?

You can check out the types of nouns in Merriam Webster’s advanced learner’s dictionary.

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17 Answers

morphail's avatar

Uncountable abstract nouns can be used as countable nouns in the partitive, which is used to denote a subset of something. “A knowledge of English” is the partitive. It means “a kind or subset of knowledge”. Also:
He felt a happiness that he had never felt before. (a kind of happiness)
A love like this can only come along once. (this kind of love)

Whether a noun is countable has nothing to do with whether you can measure it. It is just a grammatical property.

gasman's avatar

I think life and work can be countable (taking the indefinite article) or uncountable, depending on context. In “Life is a struggle.” the word life is uncountable, referring to the unique shared human experience, synonymous with “being alive.” This is distinct from “a life of misery” where one of a countable number (of other lives) is specified.

In the same way “work” is uncountable in the sense of “the act of working,” the unique shared human experience, synonymous with “doing work.”

In other words, there are distinct senses of life & work, probably numbered differently in the dictionary, that require varying usage (use of indefinite article, for instance).

“Knowledge” is similar. “Knowledge is power” uses uncountable abstract nouns, whereas “Mountaineering requires a knowledge of first-aid” uses knowledge in a countable sense, one of many possible instances of knowledge.

I think that correct usage will come with repeatedly hearing and reading these words in context.

gailcalled's avatar

Fruit can be both, I guess. The terms “countable’ and “uncountable are unfamiliar to me

Normally it is a singular noun.

Give me some fruit. (Two bananas or three apples or twenty-seven grapes.)

Give me a piece of fruit (another idiom).

Bring back some fruit from the store.

The fruit that I bought yesterday was overripe.

The fruit in this basket is all organic.

I have fruit for breakfast every morning.

As an idiom, it can be plural, most commonly as “the fruits of my labors,” which means the reward for my hard work.

misty123's avatar

@morphail : Thanks for the explanation. ”Uncountable abstract nouns can be used as countable nouns in the partitive, which is used to denote a subset of something.

What about this sentence:

I need information and advice.

I think we can’t use these nouns as countable.
Saying above sentence with articles would be – I need an information and an advice.

Both are uncountable nouns. Is “information” or “advice” a particular kind of information or advice?

@gasman: I think this cannot be applied to all uncountable nouns like water, progress, etc.
We can’t say “a very good progress” instead “very good progress”.

@gailcalled : Thanks for the detailed explanation.

gasman's avatar

@misty123 Right – it varies from word to word whether both senses are used. Native speakers instinctively know which ones, but it’s a bit harder for ESL.

morphail's avatar

@misty123 I’m not sure what you’re asking. “information” and “advice” are usually uncountable as far as I know.

misty123's avatar

@morphail :Yes, they are. But, we cannot use them as countable nouns the way you have used happiness and love. We cannot say “an information” or “an advice”, but we can say “a happiness” or “a love”.

@gasman : I think I need to read and hear more examples to understand the concepts clearly.

morphail's avatar

@misty123 Yes, you’re right.

misty123's avatar

@morphail : Do you know any rule to determine whether an indefinite article before an abstract noun is required or not?

gailcalled's avatar

Here’s an interesting quote that I have always liked, from Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Les fruits sont å tous et la terre n’est å personne.

The fruits of the earth belong to everyone and the land to no one.

misty123's avatar

@gailcalled :Good quote indeed. Fruits not fruit. :)

gailcalled's avatar

Exactly.

morphail's avatar

@misty123 let me rephrase your question: how do you know when you can use an abstract uncountable noun as a partitive countable noun?

I don’t know. I think it is something you will become for familiar with as you read more. I see that the examples I gave deal with feelings and emotions. Maybe it has something to do with that.

misty123's avatar

I think it’s quite difficult to understand. I just found an interesting link about the usage of nouns.
Degree….......... Example…....................... Permitted Determiners
I….....................equipment…..............................NONE
IIa…..................knowledge…................................a
IIb…...................clothes….....................................many, few
III…....................cattle….......................................many, few, and relatively large round numbers
IV…....................police…......................................ALL EXCEPT those listed below*
V….....................dog….........................................ALL

*this, that, a, another, either, neither, each, much, less, a little, every, little, one
(Rodney Huddleston, Introduction to the Grammar of English.)

On page number 245, Huddleston gives a list of determiners at (22) that includes “etc.”, so it turns out he hasn’t listed every possibility in his chart.

misty123's avatar

It’s really helpful. The example shown for “equipment” makes me confused. From the chart, the noun equipment is an uncountable noun and it does not take any determiner. But, in the given examples it is seen that he has used “a good equipment” Shouldn’t it be “some” or “any” equipment. Maybe I am wrong.

morphail's avatar

@misty123 The examples are proceeded by asterisks (*) which means they are not grammatical. So ”*a good equipment”, ”*the few outskirts”, ”*two clothes”, etc are not permitted in English grammar.

This book is written for linguists, not ESL students. (I assume you’re an ESL student?)

misty123's avatar

@morphail Oh, I thought it was used as a correct example. I understood now.
Thanks.

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