Inquire: Nouns Can Be Your Friend
Many people believe that the secret to becoming a good writer is just to learn more words, that the more words you have at your disposal, the better you will write. Of course, it’s always a good idea to expand your vocabulary, but simply knowing more words won’t automatically translate into good writing. If you don’t understand how to use the words properly, it doesn’t matter how many you know.
Nouns seem to be one of the simplest aspects of grammar, but numerous traps around their usage can go unnoticed. Not understanding their subtleties can degrade the quality of your writing. When you learn a few of the basic rules and distinctions about nouns, your writing, and your grade, will improve.
How can an increased awareness of noun usage increase your ability to improve your writing so as to better express your ideas?
Watch: Do Nouns Count?
Read: What’s in a Noun...
Without nouns, the universe would be abstract. Nouns name the different pieces of the universe so we can think and communicate about it. But, sometimes it seems as though the rules pertaining to nouns hamper our communication rather than assist it. Do we really need all these rules? Don’t they, at least sometimes, just get in the way?
It’s true that grammar rules abound. But, you will find that the more you learn about them, discovering the logic behind the rules, you will find yourself becoming a better speaker and writer. Knowledge is power, and a working knowledge of these rules will make you a more adept communicator.
It is estimated that the inception of the English language occurred during the mid-5th century, and its rules of grammar have been in a continual state of evolution ever since. Yes, usage norms have always existed. Grammatical rules, and the words to which they pertain, occur naturally while a language is being spoken and written. They aren’t made up first and then put into practice. They are deduced after they have been in use.
Throughout the 16 centuries of grammatical change, at any given time, a particular rule may be at the point of reinterpretation, and often scholars and editors disagree on what is proper. In books on style and usage, it’s not uncommon to find sentences that begin with, “Most writers agree that you can…”
It’s possible that what receives a red mark on a paper in one professor’s class might get a plus sign in another’s. The rules as outlined in this lesson are currently considered to be grammatically proper, but you may find that your instructor is in a different camp regarding certain rules that are in the process of transformation. When in doubt, it’s always good to check with the professor.
Does it Count?
One important area of usage regarding nouns deals with countable nouns and uncountable nouns. (Countable nouns are sometimes called count nouns. Uncountable nouns are sometimes called mass nouns or non-count nouns).
Generally, countable nouns are discrete items that can be counted individually. Countable nouns have both singular and plural forms, and the singular form uses the determiner a or an.
|A table||Two tables|
|An address||Several addresses|
|A child||Many children|
Should you desire to know the quantity of countable nouns, you would ask, “How many?”
Uncountable nouns do not occur in discrete units but rather are one continuous mass. They can’t be counted in numbers. Uncountable nouns usually do not have a plural, and they are used with a singular verb.
When you want to know the quantity of uncountable nouns, the question you would ask is, “How much?”
Categories of Uncountable Nouns
Uncountable nouns tend to fall into several categories:
Feelings – happiness, enthusiasm, pride, carefreeness
Gases – air, oxygen, neon
Abstract ideas – chaos, honesty, knowledge
Liquids – water, milk, wine
States of being – childhood, awareness, sleep
Grain and powder – sugar, wheat, sand
Tricky Uncountable Nouns
Sometimes an uncountable noun can become a countable noun.
For instance, the word hair is typically uncountable. The entire family’s hair is auburn. The uncountable noun uses a singular verb.
However, a family member could be at a restaurant and find two hairs in their soup. “Two hairs are in my soup.” Now, what is generally an uncountable noun is operating as a countable noun.
Other examples of the uncountable becoming countable are:
He gave us all great hope for the future.
We had hopes that it would turn out alright.
I told my son that travel would expand his horizons.
I have learned so much during my travels.
If you can use the determiners a and an with what is generally an uncountable noun, it means that the noun also has a countable counterpart. Now, in its countable form, it has a singular and a plural form.
Truth – Truth is generally uncountable.
Truth is eternal.
But, truth can become countable.
Traveling is a love of mine. My loves include reading and drawing.
He has an air about him. He puts on airs.
The Fewer – Less Distinction
The television show Game of Thrones portrays a character with a penchant for proper grammar. In the episode “The Spoils of War,” Jon Snow asks Davos Seaworth of the Night King, “How many men do we have in the North to fight him? Ten thousand? Less?” Under his breath, Davos corrects him. “Fewer,” he says.
The rules designating when fewer and less should be used have separated the grammar police into two warring camps — the purists being accused by the progressives of being hyper-corrective, and the progressives being accused by the purists of being stupid.
Here’s the long standing rule:
Use fewer with countable nouns, and use less with uncountable nouns.
Examples with fewer:
He had fewer questions after the lecture.
Sally wrote fewer songs than Joni.
I wish there were fewer grammatical rules.
Examples with less:
Have you noticed there seems to be less time these days?
He could stand to wear less cologne.
It took less effort than I’d thought.
Exceptions to the Fewer-Less Rule
Less is used when what appears plural is actually being used as a singular unit. These exceptions are generally applied to words that occur within a particular set of categories.
The categories that get an exception to the “fewer with countables and less with uncountables” rule are time, money, weight, and distance. This exception occurs because we tend to think of these as singular units.
Incorrect – He worked there fewer than two years.
Correct – He worked there less than two years.
Incorrect – The whole thing cost fewer than 20 dollars.
Correct – The whole thing cost less than 20 dollars.
Incorrect – During her pregnancy, she gained fewer than 30 pounds.
Correct – During her pregnancy, she gained less than 30 pounds.
Incorrect – My office is fewer than four miles from my house.
Correct – My office is less than four miles from my house.
It may be tempting to use fewer in these situations, since it appears that a plural is being used. Using fewer with plurals is, after all, the general rule. So, train your ear to catch the distinction, because this exception to the rule is an important one. You can be certain your instructor knows it.
Poll: Fewer vs. Less
Expand: Nouns and their Tricky Issues
An otherwise perfectly written paper can get knocked down a grade if grammatical rules are broken. Fortunately, most grammatical rules regarding nouns are black and white, but it’s important to understand the often-elusive gray area that lies in between. In other words, it’s important to recognize when hard-and-fast grammar rules have subtle exceptions that need to be followed as well.
It’s not so much the nouns themselves that cause the problems but the words surrounding them that can get you into trouble. Learning the rare exceptions and the grammatical nuances can make the difference between a great grade and a good one.
Countable nouns are nouns you can assign a number to.
He has one dollar.
If you want to know the quantity of a countable noun, you ask, “How many?”
“How many dollars does he have?”
Uncountable nouns are nouns you cannot assign a number to.
“She has a lot of money.”
If you want to know the quantity of an uncountable noun, you ask, “How much?”
“How much money does she have?”
Collective nouns are nouns that refer to a group that is considered to be one unit. They are a collective whole. They are single words that refer to a group, including the word group.
The team is ready.
The team are ready.
Which is correct?
Subject-Verb Agreement with Collective Nouns
The subject-verb agreement issue depends upon the context in which the collective noun is used. If it is clear from the context that the noun references a unified whole, the singular verb is used. If it’s obvious the collective noun is referring to individuals within the unit, then the plural is used.
Here, the collective noun team obviously implies a single unity, so the singular verb is correct.
The team is on the field.
In the next sentence, the collective noun team represents the individuals who comprise the group.
The team are spending the holidays with their families.
Here, it’s obvious we’re talking about the individual members of the team, so the plural are is grammatically correct. But, are might not seem aesthetically right to you. In fact, it might sound downright silly. The word is could be more in alignment with common parlance.
The team is spending the holidays with their families.
So there you are. The verb is sounds better, but were you to write it that way, it could be graded as incorrect grammar. So what do you do?
Or, you could devise with a creative workaround. In this case, it would be simple, and probably aesthetically pleasing, to write, “The members of the team are spending the holidays with their families.”
Collective Nouns and Prepositional Phrases
How do you choose whether to use a singular or plural verb when a collective noun is followed by a prepositional phrase that has an obviously plural object?
A jury of my peers.
A flock of seagulls.
A class of mathematicians
In these situations, grammar rules allow for some variation based upon context and meaning. Again, if it is clear that the collective noun is acting as an undivided whole, use the singular verb.
A jury of my peers is reviewing my case.
But, if from the context it’s clear that the sentence is about the actions of several independent individuals, you would want to use the plural form of the verb.
A jury of my peers are at each other’s throats.
And, again, if the grammatically correct plural verb doesn’t sound right to your ear, creatively reword the sentence.
The jurors on my review committee are slugging it out.
Additional Resources and Readings
A helpful video explaining countable nouns with examples
A helpful video explaining uncountable nouns with examples
More information on countable and uncountable nouns with examples
- collective nounsnouns that refer to a group that is considered to be one whole unit
- countable nounsnouns that can be counted, that can have a number assigned to them; countable nouns have both a singular and a plural; to ascertain the quantity of countable nouns, the question asked is, “How many?”; also called count nouns
- nounswords that name, or represent, specific things or sets of things
- uncountable nounsnouns that cannot be counted or have a number assigned to them; to ascertain the quantity of uncountable nouns, the question asked is, “How much?”; also called mass nouns or non-count nouns
License and Citations
Authored and curated by Vicky Woodward for The TEL Library. CC BY NC SA 4.0
|bait capture catch||Skitterphoto||Pexels||CC 0|
|Humorous Poems …||Thomas Hood||Flickr||Public Domain|
|action American football athletes||Pixabay||Pexels||CC 0|
|Games Of Thrones Action Figure||ErikaWittlieb||Pixbay||CC 0|
|beautiful beauty dandelion||Pixabay||Pexels||CC 0|
|dining room home interior||Kaboompics .com||Pexels||CC 0|
Check Your Knowledge
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- Question 1 of 5
Which of these is NOT a countable noun?CorrectIncorrect
- Question 2 of 5
Which of these is an uncountable noun?CorrectIncorrect
- Question 3 of 5
There were _______ items in her shopping cart than the man’s.CorrectIncorrect
- Question 4 of 5
The cat brought in _______ mice this week than last.CorrectIncorrect
- Question 5 of 5
The dog tracked ________ mud into the living room than in my bedroom.CorrectIncorrect