Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Death of the Countable Noun

I'm calling it. On May 12, 2010 at whatever time it aired wherever you live, the countable noun issued its last gasp and faded into linguistic oblivion. I expect it from teenagers, who can't even be bothered to put the "y" and the "o" on "ur". I can even choke it down on CNN, which is so busy "asking what we think" on a particular story that they forgot to tell us what the story is in the first place. But STEPHEN COLBERT? Why, Stephen, why? The king of truthiness and the creator of wikiality? You of all people.

In his segment "Stephen Colbert's Sound Advice", he reported on an MIT study that found longer essays got higher scores on the SAT than shorter ones, regardless of errors. This doesn't surprise me because Educational Testing Service has been doing its best to screw up education for years. (Don't get me started on standardized testing. I'll save that for later.) Accompanying his monologue was this wonderful caption. "More Words - Less Errors" You could have knocked me over with a feather. I felt like the Native American in the 70s "Stop Littering" campaign with a single tear trickling down my face at what had been done to my beloved language.

If you don't see a problem with that, we need to talk. What he meant to say (or write, actually) was, of course, "More Words - Fewer Errors". Unfortunately, fewer and fewer people know this. The issue is the difference between countable and uncountable nouns.

A countable noun is a noun that can be pluralized, usually by adding ~s to the end of the word, like dogs and geeks. (Thank God I can't be pluralized, huh?) You can put simple counting words in front, like one child / two children or one bankruptcy / two bankruptcies. (Usually the former precedes the latter.)

Uncountable nouns, on the other hand, cannot be pluralized. You cannot add an ~s to the end and you cannot precede them with numbers. You cannot say informations and you cannot count ice. (You can only say one ice / two ices if you are Italian, referring of course to the wonderful summer treat that is an Italian ice.) Furthermore, if you try to count uncountable nouns, you have to use a phrase with of, as in a loaf of bread or an ear of corn. (How weird is that one, by the way? Who thought of that? Van Gogh?)

When you ask about the number of a certain countable thing, you ask how many, as in "How many more minutes am I going to waste reading this damn blog?" However, when you ask about the amount of an uncountable thing, you ask how much, as in "How much time does this dork waste writing this damn blog?" (Don't get me started on how many times I've wanted to give demerits to students who I've overheard asking "How much pages did you read last night?")

This is exactly the same rule to follow with less and fewer. Less goes with much and can only be used with uncountable nouns. Similarly, if a noun is countable, you must use fewer, which goes with many.
  • How much money do you have?
  • I have a lot less money than I used to. Stupid Colts.
  • How many times have people thanked you for correcting their grammar?
  • A lot fewer than you would think.
So let's try to come up with a simple device to help people remember. Something to do with the plural ~s and the esses at the end of less.
  • Use less esses. (Maybe too hard to say, especially with a lisp. However, it might be perfect for a speech therapist.)
  • Less and an ~s make a mess. (Nah. My wife would yell at me for not cleaning it up.)
  • If it ends with ~s, don't use less.
Ooo. I like that last one. Let's use that.


(If you would like more perspective on uncountable nouns, I have added the explanations that I give my English as a Second Language students, but hopefully in a more entertaining way.)

Here are the rules of thumb I teach my students. As far as I know, I made some of this up, but it seems to work most of the time. In order for them to work, please try to avoid the typical teenage behavior of always trying to disprove everything an old fuht like me says. (Fuht is a lovely Hawaiian word for air biscuit or the elementary school favorite SBD.) Keep an open mind and an even broader definition.

1. Liquids: All liquids are uncountable, even really thick ones, like toothpaste or grandma's oatmeal. (The lumps, however, are countable.) I include chocolate on the list because it is a liquid when it is made and is thickened by other agents. (I should know. I grew up close to Hershey, Pennsylvania and even went on the factory tour a couple of times before they closed it down. The factory definitely smelled better than the paper mill that was also nearby.)

"But wait!" I hear you think. "I can order two waters at a restaurant." Actually, what you are ordering is two glasses of water. Conversational conventions allow for this, but the original grammatical form is still uncountable. (Hey. I like a few beers as much, probably more, than the next guy, be they in cans or bottles or coming straight out of the tap. Give it up for keg-stands, ya'll.)

2. Things that are too small to count: These would be things like salt, sugar and sand. I suppose it would be possible to count every grain of sand on the beach, but then they'd have to get Dustin Hoffman to play you in the movie.

3. Things that cannot be touched or held: You cannot hold information. You can hold the newspaper or book that contains the information, or the iPad by which you are reading this blog. (I really, really want one of those.) However, the information itself is ethereal. (How's that for an SAT word, Mr. SAT-writer guy?) However, ideas for some reason are countable. I guess if you can steal it, you can count it. (See the "cock-a-roaching" reference in the previous blog.) Please add to this list my future teenaged daughter, you hormone-filled high school boys.

4. Categories or group nouns: Close your eyes and imagine fruit. Some of you may picture a luscious, ripe peach. Others might think of a tart cherry. Because it describes a whole plethora of fruit (again with the SAT words), fruit is an uncountable category noun. On the other hand, if I asked you to imagine an apple, everyone would imagine roughly the same thing.

5. Things that are countable when you buy or make them, but uncountable when you eat or use them: This list would include pizza, ham and pineapple, which, when put together, make a lovely Hawaiian pizza. When you order pizza you ask for two large pizzas. However, when the pizza is eaten, few people can eat the whole thing, so they eat slices of pizza. (Unless you are Big Ralphie, who impressed us all with his downing of two large pan pizzas at an all-you-can-eat Pizza Hut near G-burg. And then played a pick-up game of basketball. You da man!)


  1. I must admit to being disappointed after first misreading the title and realizing this blog was not a whodunnit mystery about the unfortunate demise of a "Countable Nun," but the maudlin reverie over some missing nouns! I now understand why one must keep track of missing vowels required to properly count a noun -- even if my latent prurience was left unsatisfied by the lesser intrigue of the excesses of habit as opposed to the courting of a nunnery. Pete M.

  2. I love your perspective, but by the time I got to the end I felt you were rather belaboring the point. But I already knew the rule; your explanation is quite thorough for the uninitiated, I suppose.

    Regarding Colbert's gaffe, I saw it too but just blamed his writers and whomever is charged with captioning. Blame Colbert for any error? I can't even go there.

  3. AF -- I see your point. As a teacher, this is how I teach uncountable nouns to my ESL students. I agree that the main point, at the end, may be lost in the shuffle. Perhaps I should switch it around and put the uncountable noun explanation at the end for those who want to keep reading.

    Regarding the Colbert stuff, on the lighter side, I was poking innocent fun at a personality who consistently does amazing things with language, which I love and respect. On a serious note, though, as the face of a show that bears his name, ultimately I think he is responsible for what is broadcast. Somebody has to be and an error as egregious as this one should not have been aired.

    Thanks for your feedback. I hope the blog was good enough to keep you reading.


  4. Thank you, Alarming Female, for your critique. I reorganized the blog and I agree that it reads much better.

  5. Thanks for the post, Grammar Geek! You should send a note to the Safeway cashier regarding their "10 items or less" isle. :)

  6. Another friend mentioned the supermarket thing today, too. I'd never really noticed it, to tell you the truth.

  7. Good post. But I think it's worth noting that you are teaching ESL students in Hawaii, right? I live and work with people from all over Asia, and I've noticed that they tend to have a problem with this in particular. I often heard 'homeworks', 'breads' and 'waters'. Perhaps this is because those languages don't distinguish in the same way that English does? Perhaps learning how the un/countable nouns work in those languages might help you to make it easier for them to distinguish this in English?

    BTW, it's van Gogh.

  8. The biggest problem that Asian speakers have is that plurals evolved out of those languages a long time ago. Another problem is that East Asian languages have such extensive counting systems, with different counters for different items. Since it's impossible to predict what languages will be represented in my classroom, I have to stick with English-only explanations. If I were teaching in Japan again, I could probably analyze counters and draw some sort of correlation between the languages. Bottom line, at some point rote memorization or trial and error of some words, like homework, is necessary.

  9. Thank you for addressing my biggest grammar pet peeve! I blame the advertising writers... "MORE TASTE! LESS CALORIES!" That seems to be where I see it the most.

  10. Thank you for this informative post! It will help me with my classes ^_^