Countable and Uncountable Nouns - Part 1: The Basic Idea and Spelling Rules

grammar Jun 08, 2021

The Basics of Countable and Uncountable Nouns

This week, I was having a conversation on Clubhouse with a very hardworking, curious English learner whose name is Nakomi Elsaroz. The conversation went something like this:

Nakomi: So Michael, what is a noun?

Michael: Good question. Well, a noun is a word that represents a person, place, or thing.

Nakomi: A person, place, or thing. Like, teacher, that's a person. New York is a place and desk is a thing.

Michael: That’s right. Words like student, worker, Michael, Kate, Tokyo, Paris, park, beach, tablet, and oven are all nouns.

Nakomi: I get it. That’s easy. But are all nouns the same?

Michael: Ah, that’s another good question. One of the interesting things about nouns in English is that we can classify them into two groups - nouns we can count, or countable nouns, and nouns that we can't count, or uncountable nouns.

Nakomi: I’ve heard of that before. I think I get it, but can you tell me more about these countable and uncountable nouns?

Michael: You bet. In general, a countable noun is a word that represents something you can point to with your finger and count using numbers. For example pen. How many do you have there?

Nakomi: I have three pens.

Michael: Right! You can see each one and while pointing to each one with your finger, so you can count them. That’s why the noun pen is a countable noun - because you can see each pen and count them.

Nakomi: Does that work for all countable nouns?

Michael: Oh, I wish it did, but actually no, it doesn’t. There are some countable nouns that represent ideas, feelings, or situations that you can’t see or count by pointing a finger, like reservation, success, and wish. We’ll look at this group more in detail later in this series of lessons.

Nakomi: Ok, that sounds good. But I also heard about words like singular and plural. What’s that all about?

Michael: Well, the nouns that we can count have two forms - singular and plural. We use the singular form when we talk about one person, one place or one thing and we use the plural form when we talk about two or more of them.

Nakomi: Oh I get it! And then when you go from the singular to the plural form, all you need to do is put an S at the end of the word, like pen becomes pens.

Michael: Well, yes, in most cases. But that’s where the fun begins! There are some rules about the spelling and form of countable nouns that I’m going to show you in this series of lessons. Are you ready?

Nakomi: Yep! I’m all set.

Michael: Ok then, let’s start with the 5 Basic Spelling Rules (and three exceptions) of plural nouns. Remember the spelling of plural nouns depends on the last letter or letters of the noun.

The 5 Basic Spelling Rules of Plural Nouns

Rule #1: When a noun ends in a consonant (letters like d, n, m, p, t, etc.) and most vowels (letters like a and e) add s to make the plural form:

  • bird → birds / pen → pens / teem → teems / pump → pumps / cat → cats / arena → arenas / cave → caves

Rule #2: When a noun ends in a vowel followed by y, (like ay, ey, oy) you also add s to make the plural.

  • bay → bays / day → days / essay → essays / key → keys / boy → boys / toy → toys

Rule #3: When a noun ends in a consonant followed by y, (like dy, ry, oy, etc.) change the y to ies to make the plural.

  • baby → babies / body → bodies / berry → berries / family → families / spy → spies / city → cities           

Rule #4: When a noun ends in ch, s, sh, x, or z, add es to make the plural.

  • couch → couches / class → classes / wish → wishes / box → boxes / waltz → waltzes

Rule #5: When a noun ends in o, add s to make the plural.           

  1. casino → casinos / logo → logos / photo → photos / radio → radios / video → videos 

The 3 Exceptions To Spelling Rules of Plural Nouns

Of course, as is often the case in English, there are exceptions to these rules:

Exception #1: For some words that end in o, add es to make the plural.            

  • hero → heroes / potato → potatoes / tomato → tomatoes / volcano → volcanoes

A good dictionary will tell you which words ending in o make the plural with s or es

Exception #2: When a word ends in vowel followed by z (like az or iz), add zes to make the plural. There are just a few words in English with this spelling.

  • quiz → quizzes / spaz → spazzes / wiz → wizzes

Exception #3: Most proper nouns (the official names of things) generally become plurals by adding s

  • February → Februarys / Hello Kitty → Hello Kittys / London → Londons / Mike → Mikes

Nakomi: Wow! That’s a lot to remember.

Michael: You’re right. Work on that for now, and then in the next lesson, we’ll talk about the various kinds of countable nouns.

The information here is based on The English Grammar Workbook For Adults

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