First things first: Why do we need to worry about countable and uncountable nouns?
Because whether some of the quantity words can be used with a noun is dependent on whether the noun is countable, and such usage is tested on GMAT.
So, without further ado, let’s get to understand the two kinds of nouns and the correct and incorrect uses of the different words with them.
What is a countable noun?
A countable noun is a noun that can be counted. Generally, these nouns have plural forms.
For example: cars, radios, bats, bananas, men, ideas
Words that can be used only with countable nouns are: Few, Fewer, Many, Number, and Numerous.
These words cannot be used with uncountable nouns.
What is an uncountable noun?
An uncountable noun is a noun that cannot be counted. These nouns do not have a plural form (since they cannot be counted).
For example: excellence, understanding, crisp, knowledge, sleep
Words that can be used only with uncountable nouns are: Amount, Equal, Great, Greater, Less, Little, and Much.
Words that can be used with both
The words listed in the table can be used with both countable and uncountable nouns.
How to determine whether a noun is countable?
A noun is countable if and only if you can count it. For example: you can say one car, two cars, three cars. So, “car” is countable.
However, you cannot say one information or two informations. Therefore, “information” is an uncountable noun.
Also, remember that countable nouns generally have plural forms while uncountable nouns never have plural forms. Therefore, if a plural form of a noun exists, it means that it is indeed a countable noun. (The below section lists out exceptions to this rule)
“What would be a language without exceptions to its rules!”. I heard this statement somewhere, and it makes so much (not many! – uncountable noun) sense. Most, or rather almost all, rules in English have exceptions. And it’s important to know these exceptions; otherwise, we may get tripped by GMAT!
OK! So, we have already touched on one kind of exception.
Exception – 1
Sense – Is it countable or uncountable?
We do have plural “senses”. But I just used “much” with sense. Was I wrong?
No. I wasn’t. Some nouns can act as both countable and uncountable, depending on the context of a sentence.
- He makes so much sense.
- Your senses are working superbly.
Both the above sentences are correct.
- In the first sentence, “sense” is used in an uncountable way. Here, we are focused on the “extent” of sense – or reasonableness – not on the number of senses.
- In the second sentence, “senses” is used in a countable way. Here, we are focused not on the extent of the sense but on the “number” of senses or faculties of perception.
Let’s take another example:
- There’s so much truth in this statement.
- The fundamental truths of life can be discovered by anyone.
Again, both the above sentences are correct.
- In the first sentence, “truth” is used in an uncountable way. Here, we are focused on the “extent” of truth – or correctness – not on the number of truths.
- In the second sentence, “truths” is used in a countable way. Here, we are focused not on the extent of truth but on the “number” of truths – or facts.
- If we are concerned about the “extent” of the noun, then the noun is being used in an uncountable way, and words corresponding to uncountable nouns should be used in the sentence.
- If we want to talk about the “number” of the noun, then the noun is being used in a countable way, and words corresponding to countable nouns should be used in the sentence.
Exception – 2
Let’s look at the below two sentences:
- A movie ticket costs less than 3 dollars.
- The journey will need as much as 2 gallons of diesel.
Are the above sentences correct?
Yes. They are. Both the above sentences are correct.
Why can we use “less” or “much” with a countable noun “dollars” or “gallons”?
The reason is that in the first sentence, the number of dollars represents the quantity of money, which is uncountable. Similarly, in the second sentence, the number of gallons represents the quantity of diesel, which is uncountable. Therefore, we can use words corresponding to uncountable nouns with these units of measurement. (dollars is a unit of measurement of money, and gallons is a unit of measurement of diesel)
So, even though these units are countable (you can say one dollar, 2 dollars or one gallon, two gallons), they are representing something uncountable (money or diesel). Therefore, the context of the sentence dictates that we use uncountable quantity words here.
Please also note that we can use also countable quantity words with these units if the context of the sentence requires. For example: we can say “We have fewer than 10 dollars”. In this case, it seems we are referring to the number of dollar bills we have rather than the amount of money. Even though this sentence is also correct, there is indeed some change in meaning.