Thinking Box

Fundamentals of English Grammar - Chapter 11: Count/Noncount Nouns and Articles

11-1 A vs. An

  • (a) I have a pencil.
    (b) I live in an apartment.
    (c) I have a small apartment.
    (d) I live in an old building.

    A and an are used in front of a singular noun (e.g., pencil, apartment). They mean "one."

    If a singular noun is modified by an adjective (e.g., small, old), a or an comes in front of the adjective, as in (c) and (d).

    A is used in front of words that begin with a consonant (b, c, d, f, g, etc.): a boy, a bad day, a cat, a cute baby.

    An is used in front of words that begin with the vowels a, e, i, and o: an apartment, an angry man, an elephant, an elephant, an empty room, etc.

  • (e) I have an umbrella.
    (f) I saw an ugly picture.
    (g) I attend a university.
    (h) I had a unique experience.

    For words that begin with the letter u:
    (1) An is used if the u is a vowel sound, as in an umbrella, an uncle, an unusual day.
    (2) A is used if the u is a consonant sound, as in a university, a unit, a usual event.

  • (i) He will arrive in an hour.
    (j) New Year's Day is a holiday.

    For words that begin with the letter h:
    (1) An is used if the h is silent: an hour, an honor, an honest person.
    (2) A is used if the h is pronounced: a holiday, a hotel, a high grade.

11-2 Count and Noncount Nouns

COUNT NOUN (Singular -> Plural)

  • a chair -> chairs
    one chair -> two chairs / some chairs

    A count noun:
    (1) can be counted with numbers: one chair, two chairs, ten chairs, etc.
    (2) can be preceded by a/an in the singular: a chairs.
    (3) has a plural form ending in -s or -es: chairs.


  • furniture / some furniture

    A noncount noun:
    (1) cannot be counted with numbers.
    INCORRECT: one furniture
    (2) is not immediately preceded by a/an.
    INCORRECT: a furniture
    (3) does NOT have a plural form (no final -s).
    INCORRECT: furnitures

11-3 Noncount Nouns

Individual Parts(Count Nouns) -> The Whole(Noncount Nouns)

  • (a) letters / postcards / bills / etc. -> mail
    (b) apples / bananas / oranges / etc. -> fruit
    (c) rings / bracelets / necklaces / etc. -> jewelry

    Noncount nouns usually refer to a whole group of things that is made up of many individual parts, a whole category made of different varieties.
    For example, furniture is a noncount noun; it describes a whole category of things: chairs, tables, beds, etc.
    Mail, fruit, and jewelry are other examples of noncount nouns that refer to a whole category made up of individual parts.

Some Common Noncount Nouns: Whole Groups Made up of Individual Parts

  • A. clothing / equipment / food / fruit / furniture / jewelry / mail / money / scenery / stuff / traffic
    B. homework / housework / work
    C. advice / information
    D. history / literature / music / poetry
    E. grammar / slang / vocabulary
    F. Arabic / Chinese / English / German / Indonesian / Spanish / Etc.
    G. corn / dirt / flour / hair / pepper / rice / salt / sand / sugar

11-4 More Noncount Nouns

  • (a) Liquids
    coffee / soup / milk / tea / oil / water
    Solids and Semi-Solids
    bread /meat / chalk / paper
    butler / beef / glass / soap
    cheese / chicken / gold / toothpaste
    ice / fish / iron / wood
    air / pollution / smog / smoke
  • (b) Things That Occur in Nature
    weather / darkness / thunder
    rain / light / lightning
    snow / sunshine
  • (c) Abstractions*
    beauty / fun / health / ignorance / luck / selfishness
    courage / generosity / help / kindness / patience / time
    experience / happiness / honesty / knowledge / progress / violence

*An abstraction is an idea. It has no physical form. A person cannot touch it.

11-5 Using Several, A Lot of, Many/Much, and A Few/A Little

Count / Noncount

  • (a) several chairs /

    Several is used only with count nouns.

  • (b) a lot of chairs / a lot of furniture

    a lot of is used with both count and noncount nouns.

  • (c) many chairs / much furniture

    Many is used with count nouns.
    Much is used with noncount nouns.

  • (d) a few chairs / a little furniture

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

11-6 Nouns That Can Be Count or Noncount

Quite a few nouns can be used as either count or noncout nouns. examples of both count and noncount usages for some common nouns follow.

Used as a Noncount Noun / Used as a Count Noun

  • glass
    (a) Windows are made of glass. /
    (b) I drank a glass of water.
    (c) Janet wears glasses when she reads.
  • hair
    (d) Rita has brown hair. /
    (e) There's a hair on my jacket.
  • iron
    (f) Iron is a metal. /
    (g) I pressed my shirt with an iron.
  • light
    (h) I opened the curtain to let in some light. /
    (i) Please turn off the lights (lamps).
  • paper
    (j) I need some paper to write a note. /
    (k) I wrote a paper for Professor Lee.
    (l) I bought a paper (a newspaper).
  • time
    (m) How much time do you need to finish your work? /
    (n) How many times have you been to Mexico?
  • work
    (o) I have some work to do tonight. /
    (p) That painting is a work of art.
  • coffee
    (q) I had some coffee after dinner. /
    (r) Two coffees, please.
  • chicken/fish
    (s) I ate some chicken/fish. /
    (t) SHe drew a picture of a chicken/fish.
  • experience
    (u) I haven't had much experience with computers. (I don't have much knowledge or skill in computers.) /
    (v) I had many interesting experiences on my trip. (Many interesting events happened to me on my trip.)

11-7 Using Units of Measure with Noncount Nouns

(a) I had some tea.
(b) I had two cups of tea.

(c) I ate some toast.
(d) I ate one piece of toast.

To mention a specific quantity of a noncount noun, speakers use units of measure such as two cups of or one piece of.

A unit of measure usually describes the container (a cup of, a bowl of), the amount (a pound of, a quart of), or the shape (a bar of soap, a sheet of paper).

11-8 Guidelines for Article Usage


Singular Count Nouns: A/An

  • (a) A dog makes a good pet.
    (b) An apple is red.
    (c) A pencil contains lead.

    In (a): The speaker is talking about any dog, all dogs, dogs in general.

Plural Count Nouns: Ø

  • (d) Dogs make good pets.
    (e) Apples are red.
    (f) Pencils contain lead.

    In (d): The speaker is talking about any dog, all dogs, dogs, in general.
    NOTE: Examples (a) and (d) have the same meaning.

Noncount Nouns: None

  • (g) Fruit is good for you.
    (h) Coffee contains caffeine.
    (i) I like music.

    In (g): The speaker is talking about any fruit, all fruit, fruit in general.


Singular Count Nouns: A/An

  • (j) I saw a dog in my yard.
    (k) Mary ate an apple.
    (I) I need a pencil.

    In (j): The speaker is saying, "I saw one dog (not two dogs, some dogs, many dogs). It wasn't a specific dog (e.g., your dog, the neighbor's dog, that dog). It was only one dog out of the whole group of animals called dogs."

Plural Count Nouns: Some

  • (m) I saw some dogs in my yard.
    (n) Mary bought some apples.
    (o) Bob has some pencils in his pocket.

    In (m): The speaker is saying, "I saw more than one dog. They weren't specific dogs (e.g., your dogs, the neighbor's dogs, those dogs). The exact number of dogs isn't important (two dogs, five dogs); I'm simply saying that I saw an indefinite number of dogs."

Noncount Nouns: Some

  • (p) I bought some fruit.
    (q) Bob drank some coffee.
    (r) Would you like to listen to some music?

    In (p): The speaker is saying, "I bought an indefinite amount of fruit. The exact amount (e.g., two pounds of fruit, four bananas, and two apples) isn't important. And I'm not talking about specific fruit (e.g., that fruit, the fruit in that bowl.)"


Singular Count Nouns: The

  • (s) Did you feed the dog?
    (t) Kay is in the kitchen.
    (u) The sun is shining.
    (v) Please close the door.
    (w) The president is speaking on TV tonight.
    (x) I had a banana and an apple. I gave the banana to Mary.

    In (s): The speaker and the listener are thinking about the same specific dog. The listener knows which dog the speaker is talking about: the dog that they own, the dog that they feed every day. There is only one dog that the speaker could possibly be talking about.

    In (x): A speaker uses the when she/he mentions a noun the second time.
    First mention: I had a banana ...
    Second mention: I gave the banana ...

    In the second mention, the listener now knows which banana the speaker is talking about: the banana the speaker had (not the banana John had, not the banana in that bowl).

Plural Count Nouns: The

  • (y) Did you feed the dogs?
    (z) The pencils on that desk are Jim's.
    (aa) Please turn off the lights.
    (bb) I had some bananas and apples. I gave the bananas to Mary.

    In (y): The speaker and the listener are thinking about more than one dog, and they are thinking about the same specific dogs.

    In (bb) the is used for second mention.

Noncount Nouns: The

  • (cc) The fruit in this bowl is ripe.
    (dd) I can't hear you. The music is too loud.
    (ee) The air smells fresh today.
    (ff) I drank some coffee and some milk. The coffee was hot.

    When the is used with noncount nouns, the speaker knows or can assume the listener is familiar with and thinking about the same specific thing.

    In (ff): the is used for second mention.

    NOTE: a, an, and Ø are not possible for the situations described in (s) through (ff).

11-9 Using The or Ø with Names

  • (a) We met Ø Mr. Wang.
    I know Ø Doctor Smith.
    Ø President Rice has been in the news.

    The is NOT used with titled names.
    INCORRECT: We met the Mr. Wang.

  • (b) He lives in Ø Europe.
    Ø Asia is the largest continent.
    Have you ever been to Ø Africa?

    The is NOT used with the names of continents.
    INCORRECT: He lives in the Europe.

  • (c) He lives in Ø France.
    Ø Brazil is large county.
    Have you ever been to Ø Thailand?

    (d) He lives in the United States.
    The Netherlands is in Europe.
    Have you ever been to the Philippines?

    The is NOT used with the names of most countries.
    INCORRECT: He lives in the France.

    The is used in the names of only a few countries, as in (d). Others: the Czech Republic, the United Arab Emirates, The Dominican Republic.

  • (e) He lives in Ø Paris.
    Ø New York is the largest city in the United States.
    Have you ever been to Ø Istanbul?

    The is NOT used with the name of cities.
    INCORRECT: He lives in the Paris.

  • (f) The Nile River is long.
    They crossed the Pacific Ocean.
    The Yellow Sea is in Asia.

    (g) Chicago is on Ø Lake Michigan.
    Ø Lake Titicaca lies on the border between Peru and Bolivia.

    The is used with the names of rivers, oceans, and seas.
    The is NOT used with the names of lakes.

  • (h) We hiked in the Alps.
    The Andes are in South America.

    (i) He climbed Ø Mount Everest.
    Ø Mount Fuji is in Japan.

    The is used with names of mountain ranges.
    The is NOT used with the names of individual mountains.

11-10 Capitalization

  1. The first word of a sentence

    We saw a movie last night.
    It was very good.

    Capitalize = use a big letter, not a small letter

  2. The names of people

    I met George Adams yesterday.

  3. Titles used with the names of people

    I saw Doctor (Dr.) Smith.
    There's Professor (Prof.) Lee.

    I saw a doctor. BUT
    I saw Doctor Wilson.

  4. Months, days, holidays

    I was born in April.
    Bob arrived last Monday.
    It snowed on New Year's Day.

    NOTE: Seasons are not capitalized:
    spring, summer, fall/autumn, winter

  5. The names of places:
    city / state / province / country / continent
    ocean / lake / river / desert / mountain
    school / business
    street / building / park / zoo

    He lives in Chicago.
    She was born in California.
    They are from Mexico.
    Tibet is in Asia.

    The crossed the Atlantic Ocean.
    Chicago is on Lake Michigan.
    The Nile River flows north.
    The Sahara Desert is in Africa.
    We visited the Rocky Mountains.

    I go to the University of Florida.
    I work for the Boeing Company.

    He lives on Grand Avenue.
    We have class in Ritter Hall.
    I went jogging in Forest Park.

    She lives in a city. BUT
    She lives in New York City.

    They crossed a river. BUT
    They crossed the Yellow River.

    I go to a university. BUT
    I go to the University of Texas.

    We went to a park. BUT
    We went to Central Park.

  6. The name of courses

    I'm taking Chemistry 101.

    Here's your history book. BUT
    I'm talking History 101.

  7. The titles of books, articles, movies

    Gone with the Wild
    The Sound of the Mountain

    Capitalize the first word of title.
    Capitalize all other words except articles (the, a/an), coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or), and short prepositions (with, in, at, etc.).

  8. The names of languages and nationalities

    She speaks Spanish.
    We discussed Japanese customs.

    Words that refer to the names of languages and nationalities are always capitalized.

  9. The names of religions

    Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism are major religions in the world.
    Talal is a Muslem.

    Words that refer to the names of religions are always capitalized.