How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count Thy Nouns!

Nouns can be broadly divided into two categories: discrete objects and mass objects. As examples, consider the words pebbles and sand. “Pebbles” is a discrete noun because the items can be counted individually; sand isn’t countable and thus sand is a mass noun. Note, though, that if a sentence used the phrase “grains of sand,” the word grains could be a countable noun.

Grammar students call these two categories discrete nouns or countable nouns on the one hand, and mass nouns or uncountable nouns on the other.

Mass nouns (the uncountable ones) include many of the most interesting words in English. The category includes basic substances (salt, gravy, gold, air), concepts (politics, justice, help, archeology, information, infinity), natural phenomena (snow, moonlight, thunder), activities (acting, hockey, applause), grouped things (furniture, money, news), and endless other examples.

Some words are considered to be countable or not depending on the context. Consider cheese. Most often, the context of the sentence will make it clear you are writing about cheese as an undifferentiated, uncountable mass—for example, “Cheese is often the centerpiece of a refreshing luncheon menu.” Sometimes, though, you will be writing about individual varieties of cheese, and then the word can then function as a countable noun: “Charles, a noted turophile, served his guests a selection of seven Belgian cheeses before dinner.”

Each type of noun relies on specific helper words in forming sentences. Countable nouns use the words “number,” “few,” “more,” and “fewer,” for example, while uncountable nouns will use “amount,” “little,” “much,” and “less” to communicate a similar message. That sign at your grocery store checkout lane that says “Ten items or less”? It’s wrong. Your items are countable goods, and so the sign ought to read “Ten items or fewer.”

Here’s our handy little guide. Print it out and post it near your computer:


Countable nouns

Uncountable nouns

Example: “sausages”

Example: “butter”

Number of

Amount of









A, An

(no equivalent)

These, Those

(no equivalent)

Every, Each

(no equivalent)

Either, Neither

(no equivalent)

Under the Microscope

Now, at this point you are saying something such as, “What’s the point here? Surely, everyone knows this already. Why spend all this time on the obvious?”

I’m sorry to report that this isn’t obvious at all for many skilled content writers. Let’s take a look at some content writing I have reviewed in recent weeks (as always, some identifying details have been changed to avoid embarrassment):

  • If drivers would respect motorcycle riders, there would be much less accidents on the roads. “Much less” should be “many fewer.”
  • Distressed sales include foreclosures and short sales. In Little Rock, these types of sales accounted for less than 20 percent of all home sales. “Less than” should be “fewer than.”
  • Ms. Pinkham has also been named a Super Lawyers “Rising Star” for many years in a row, an honor reserved for less than three percent of attorneys statewide. “Less than” should be “fewer than.”
  • There may actually be very little or no signs of physical injury. “Very little or no” should be “very few or no.”
  • This means that in one year, the amount of drunk drivers on U.S. roads exceeded the combined populations of Virginia and North Carolina. “Amount of” should be “number of.”
  • Perhaps it’s the weather, the amount of vehicles on the road, the terrain, or a combination of these factors and more that cause the frequency of collisions. “Amount of” should be “number of.”
  • Whether or not you’re notified of garnishment, most individuals have little defenses to raise in order to contest the debts. “Little” should be “few.”

Are any of these errors quoted from your attorney, medical clinic, or small business website? How confident are you that the answer is “no”?

Singular or Plural? That Is the Question!

Here’s the general rule: Countable nouns can have both singular and plural forms; mass nouns almost always function as singular nouns.

Because discrete nouns represent things that can be counted, they naturally are singular when only one thing is considered and are plural when more than one thing is discussed. Examples: “One kitten has fallen asleep in the sunlight.” “Three more kittens are nuzzling my ukulele while they nap.”

Uncountable nouns usually act as if they were singular: “I had not realized a pipe burst overnight, and now water is filling my basement to a depth of six feet.” Here, water is a mass noun and takes the singular verb is filling. However, some website content writers make the mistake of treating uncountable nouns as if they were generalized collective nouns that can be treated as singular or plural, as the writer wishes. True collective nouns — such as family, couple, staff, Senate, audience, cast, and many others — can be treated as singular when we are considering all the people taken as a whole, or plural when the context makes it clear we’re considering individual people within a larger grouping. That sort of dual viewpoint isn’t available with uncountable nouns; you would never talk of the water filling your basement as if it were a collection of individual droplets.

This becomes a crucial issue when dealing with certain prepositional phrases. As you will recall, we normally ignore the object of a prepositional phrase when determining if a noun phrase is singular or plural. “A basket of violets,” “the ambulance of car accident victims,” and “a severe case of impacted molars” are all treated as singular because the primary nouns—basket, ambulance, and case—are singular, even though the objects of the prepositions are plural.

But prepositional phrases that deal with portions of the whole turn that rule on its head: the whole phrase is taken as singular or plural depending on whether the object is singular or plural (and uncountable nouns are considered singular). Among the common prepositional phrases that matter here are:

  • Lots of, a lot of
  • Some of
  • Many of
  • Most of
  • Plenty of
  • All of
  • Half of (and similar fractions)
  • A majority of
  • Number of


  • “Most of the water has receded from my basement.” Water is an uncountable noun, which is defined as singular, so the subject phrase is taken to be singular.
  • “I usually store root vegetables in the basement over the winter, but most of the carrots have spoiled after the flood.” In this sentence, carrots is the object of the preposition, but the “most of” phrase becomes plural because carrots is a plural word. Thus, we use the plural verb have spoiled.

Making the Most of What You Have Learned

If you or a coworker has undertaken the job of writing content for your business website, you must be attentive to the special handling demanded by uncountable nouns. Poor grammar and improper usage don’t just cause readers to scoff at your writing—they cause your credibility as a business professional to plummet. “If they can’t write a simple sentence correctly,” your reader will think, “how can I trust them to handle my finances, my legal affairs, or my medical condition?”

At Foster Web Marketing, we see our educational mission as extending beyond juggling nouns—we hope to encourage improved writing standards for all our associated companies. If you have a grammar or usage problem that we have not addressed, or if you want to share your own insights with our community, please comment on this essay. We look forward to your ideas.


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