We all had that moment in class in our early days of teaching when we were trying to teach our students to differentiate between countable and uncountable nouns, and realized that it wasn’t as straight forward as it looked at first.
“See, we can count chairs and tables. And we can count people. So these are countable nouns,” I hear myself saying.
“And we can’t count happiness. And we can’t count the weather. So these are uncountable nouns,” I feel my confidence grow as I find myself being convinced by my own arguments.
But as the words “money is uncountable” left my lips, I instantly felt like a fraud.
So I desperately try to help both my students and myself make sense of it by explaining, “You see, you can’t say one money, two monies, three monies, can you? You can say one dollar, two dollars, three dollars, though. So money is uncountable but dollars are countable!”
Voila! Problem solved.
Then a student raises his hand and asks “But why is information uncountable? It’s countable in my language! See, one information, two informations, three informations! It’s very countable!”
And another student raises her hand and says, “My other teacher said luggage is uncountable. Why? I can see one luggage, two luggages, three luggages. Right? When I go to the airport, I check in two luggages.”
“Well, we say two pieces of luggage in English,” I instinctively say.
“But how do we know when we have to use ‘pieces’ and when we don’t?”
“Well, maybe you should just memorise it. Just remember which nouns are countable and which are uncountable,” I find myself saying, as I once again start to wonder if there was any point in trying to explain a rule that has so many illogical irregularities.
But my curious students pipe up again, “What about hair? That’s countable, right?”
“Okay…it depends… When we say ‘she has brown hair’, we are looking at her whole head of hair and so hair is uncountable. When we say ‘Look at this hair in my soup!’, hair is countable,” I’m starting to groan on the inside.
“Yes, I understand, teacher! So when you say ‘I have no time’, you are looking at time as a whole? And when you say ‘Have a nice time’ you are talking about the one moment, the one time she has?”
“Err….well…not exactly…” Why didn’t they teach us this on the CELTA teacher training course?
Chalker (in Bygate et al 1994: 32) states that ‘learners certainly need to realize that guidelines rules are simplifications that will have to be revised as their knowledge and confidence grow,’ but this does not make our job any easier.
Terminologies like ‘uncountable’ and ‘countable’ seemingly make categorizing nouns a simple matter, but in reality, is a minefield.
And some might say that to deal with the issue, one should first deal with the terminology.
Using ‘count-able’ suggests that we are able to count the noun, and serves to confuse the student who strongly believes that ‘information’, ‘luggage’ and ‘money’ are things they are able to count.
Suggesting that ‘tea’, ‘hair’ or ‘cheese’ are things that are ‘uncountable’ disregards the fact that we might look at them as separate units and count them occasionally, for if we were not able to count them, then why are we suddenly able to?
Some grammarians started to prefer the use of ‘mass nouns’ to include abstract nouns and nouns that we use in a general sense.
Some went for the terms ‘uncount’ or ‘noncount’, preferring to get rid of the suffix ‘-able’ that too adamantly suggests that the category a noun falls under is strictly dependent on our ability to count it.
After all, it’s nothing to do with ability, but how we choose to see the noun in that moment of speaking.
Collins Cobuild Grammar published in 1990 went for the labels ‘count’ and ‘uncount’ to describe the nouns, while the Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar published in 1994 went for ‘count’ and ‘noncount’.
Surprisingly, the latest edition of Collins Cobuild Grammar (2011 edition) went back to using ‘countable’ and ‘uncountable’, while also including the term ‘mass nouns’.
And the latest edition of Macmillan’s English Grammar in Context uses ‘countable nouns’ versus ‘uncountable nouns’.
Looking at dictionaries, the traditional stronghold of the terms ‘countable’ and ‘uncountable’ is undeniable.
The Macmillan, Cambridge, and Longman dictionaries choose to use the terms ‘uncountable’, while the Oxford dictionaries, like its grammars, allows for both ‘mass nouns’ and ‘uncountable’ nouns.
Only the Merriam-Webster Learners’ Dictionary uses count and noncount nouns.
If there was a move for a change in the 1990s, what has happened to it? Have we abandoned hope and gone back to what was clearly better known to learners and teachers around the world?
Out of curiosity, I posted on Facebook attempting to crowdsource this.
In 20 hours, I had 27 respondents, all of whom, I believe, either teach English as a foreign language, or as a first/second language.
Out of 27 respondents, 19 said they used the terms ‘countable/uncountable’.
Many said it was out of habit and what they were used to, or because it was what was first taught to them.
A couple said the ‘count nouns’ and ‘uncount/noncount nouns’ sounded wrong…like it was bad English.
Some made the decision to use ‘countable/uncountable’ because it was more accessible to their students in that the terms were easily translatable and readily used in educational resources and coursebooks.
However, out of the 27, two said they also used ‘mass nouns’ alongside ‘countable’ and ‘uncountable’ nouns.
Seven respondents admitted to using ‘count’ nouns.
And six said they used ‘noncount’ nouns.
Interestingly, one ELT writer suggested that although ‘uncountable’ and ‘countable’ were the most common terms used, the decision as to which labels to use often depended on the target market and the style guides of the publisher one is working for.
So no rogue teacher trying to change the world of English language teaching with their terminologies then?
Another respondent said that they changed from using ‘countable’ and ‘uncountable’ to ‘count’ and ‘noncount’ when they worked in a school in Vietnam where everyone was using those terms.
So perhaps the employers and the colleagues around us play an important part in the terms that we end up using.
But what about idealogy? Is there room for that?
What do you choose to use and why?
Do you think a change in terminology and labels can help students understand and use the language better?
Meanwhile, whatever happened to ‘uncount’ nouns? Did they disappear with the 90s?
Bygate, M. et al (eds.) (1994) Grammar and the Language Teacher, Hemel Hempstead: Prentice
Chia Suan Chong is a General English and Business English teacher and teacher trainer, with a degree in Communication Studies (Broadcast and Electronic Media) and an MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching from King’s College London.
Fascinated by the interplay between culture, language and thought, Chia is also an intercultural skills trainer and materials developer, and is now based in York.
She is also the voice of @ETprofessional on Twitter. You can find out more about her on her blogsite www.chiasuanchong.com