Thursday, March 25, 2010

COMMON MISTAKES - Plural Noncountables

When learning a foreign language, there is probably only one rule that never fails. What works in your native language, doesn’t necessarily work in another language.

Look at the following examples. What's wrong with the words in bold?

1) Waiter, I would like two sandwiches and two waters.

2) I’m receiving different informations from my team.

Naturally, in romance languages like Spanish, words like water and information can be singular and plural. However in English, the situation is a little different.

The reason is that they are noncoutables (or non-count nouns). Noncountables refer to things that are generic like water or plastic; as well as abstract ideas such as peace and love.

So what are some examples of these generic and abstract things known as noncountables?

Generic materials: wood, cloth, plastic, wool, steel, glass, leather, porcelain, hair

Generic activities: reading, boating, smoking, dancing, soccer

Generic substances: ice, dust, air, oxygen, water, milk, wine, beer, sugar, rice, meat, cheese, flour

Other generics: luggage, equipment, furniture, experience, applause, photography, traffic, harm, publicity, homework, advice, heat, cold, humidity, sunshine, electricity, biology, history, mathematics, economics, poetry

Abstract concepts: information, peace, anger, courage, violence, safety, justice, work, friendship, love, freedom, good, evil, time

But here is the million dollar question. Can any of these words ever be plural?

Sure, some of them can, but not when they are in the generic or abstract sense. In other words, they can be plural when they refer to something specific in plural quantities.

1) The best wines in Argentina are from Mendoza. (doesn’t refer to wine as a generic substance, but to specific wines of a specific region)
2) The works of Pablo Picasso are magnificent. (specific pieces of art)
3) Tell us about your experiences as an English User. (specific moments in your life)
4) Remember the times you went to the library this week (specific occasions)

But what about those cases like information that cannot be expressed as plural? For those, we can add a countable + of to describe a plural situation.

This means we can talk about:

1) Pieces of/ types of / tons of / a lot of information, equipment, luggage
2) Cups of coffee, tea, juice
2) Bottles of / glasses of wine, water, milk

In conclusion, in English - before you make something PLURAL - you just need to ask yourself if whatever you're talking about is of the generic / abstract type or if its use is more specific.


  1. Does anyone else love the fact that the word "noncountable" is countable?

  2. Actually, here in the States, one would say "two waters" as a shortened form of "two glasses of water" in that order to the waiter (or the waiter would say the same to the bartender).

  3. Thanks Kimber. We're aware native speakers say "two waters" when placing an order, but for users of English as a second language, that notion is pretty arbitrary. So when it's a second language you're dealing with, the line gets really thin. That's why we went with the basic notions first. You know how it is with rules, gotta learn'em before you break'em! Thanks for the input!