TIPS AND TRICKS
Don’t take this the wrong way; no one is putting your math skills or ability to count into question. When you have to sort through things like collective, countable and uncountable (or mass) nouns, knowing when to pluralize and which quantifier to use can be easier said than done.
Countable nouns are fairly straight-forward. They consist of nouns that can be counted and therefore pluralized. Secret, for example, is a countable noun. We can have one, two, three or more secrets (that is, if we have an awful lot to hide). The singular form of countable nouns can be modified by a, one or the (e.g. a secret, one secret, the secret).
Quantifiers used with countable nouns:
- A few
- A lot of
- A number of
- A (large/small, etc.) quantity of
Collective nouns are names of collections or groups that can be considered as individual units. Army, family, flock, committee, and herd are all examples of collective nouns. Collective nouns are usually countable nouns (e.g. two armies, three families, six flocks, etc.) but are often confused with mass (or uncountable) nouns. The confusion generally stems from misuse of the term mass noun to mean collective noun. Use the same logic as would normally to determine whether a collective noun is countable or uncountable and use any quantifiers accordingly.
- For examples of collective nouns used with specific animal groups, see Animal Group Names.
- For information on subject-verb agreement with collective nouns, see Subject-Verb Agreement.
UNCOUNTABLE OR MASS NOUNS
These nouns only have a singular form and cannot be pluralized or “counted.” Clothes is an example of an uncountable or mass noun. You cannot have two or more clothes, you can only have clothes in general. Mass nouns cannot be modified by a or one, but can be modified by the (e.g. *a clothes, *one clothes, the clothes).
Quantifiers used with uncountable nouns:
- A little
- A lot of
- A (small/large, etc.) amount of
You can also quantify uncountable nouns by using countable nouns (i.e. a __ of...). For example,
- A little jujube juice; BUT two glasses of jujube juice.
- Too much clothing; BUT four articles of clothing.
TRICK: If you can modify the noun with a or one, it's countable. If you can't, it's uncountable.
NOUNS THAT CAN BE COUNTABLE AND UNCOUNTABLE
Certain nouns can be countable in some circumstances and uncountable in others. You have to use the context to determine whether the noun is countable or not. For example,
- Quiet! I thought I heard a noise; BUT I can’t concentrate with this much noise!
- We have three lights in our office; BUT There’s too much light in this room.
Drinks are generally uncountable nouns, but in many circumstances if we are thinking of a cup, a glass or a type, the quantifier can be omitted. This should, however, be avoided in formal writing. Some examples include:
- I’ll have a cup of tea and a glass of grapefruit juice please.
- That is his fourth cup of coffee this morning.
- Pépé le Pew certainly knows his wines i.e. types of wine!
FEWER, LESSER, LESS
Knowing when to use these terms can be a bit confusing. Use fewer with countable nouns when referring to number. Use lesser and less with uncountable nouns when referring to quantity, amount or size and with countable nouns when referring to number when the number is considered an amount (e.g. time, money, weight and distance). For example,
- We ate fewer chocolate bonbons at Sweet Sugars than at Candy Corruption.
- He chose the lesser of two evils.
- The Power Rangers eat less pizza than the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
- Even if we pool all our money, we still have less than $10.
- Superman said that Krypton was less than 500 light-years from here.
- For countable nouns, use fewer.
- Wait, do the macarena and use less and lesser with uncountable nouns.
- W = weight, d = distance, t = time and m = money. They should all be used with less and lesser since they are considered an amount and not a number.
Decide whether the nouns in the following sentences are countable or uncountable and choose the appropriate quantifier accordingly.
1. How many lightsabers did you say you have? That’s far too much/too many.Answer
2. Care Bears always seem to have a large amount/quantity of love in their bellies.Answer
3. How much candy-cane hot chocolate/how many candy-cane hot chocolates did you make?Answer
4. Supertrolltrotter3659 thought that was a pretty intense WOW session, even though it lasted less/fewer than three hours.Answer
5. We have less/fewer time to get all the awesome adventure preparations ready.Answer
6. This is the express lane; it’s for people with ten items or less/fewer.Answer
7. There are so many noises/is so much noise in the Eternal Echo Arena.Answer
8. You know less/fewer green goblins than I, but I know more red ones.Answer
9. We have a ridiculous amount/number of ideas floating around here.Answer
10. Four armies of princesses are prancing this way. That’s so much/many!Answer
Dundurn Press. The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1997.
Einsohn, Amy. The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications. 2nd ed. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006.
Flick, Jane and Celia Millward. Handbook for Writers. 3rd Canadian ed. Toronto: Harcourt Brace & Company, Ltd., 1999.
Messenger, William E. et al. The Canadian Writer’s Handbook. 5th ed. Toronto: Oxford University Press Canada, 2008.
The Chicago Manual of Style. 15th ed. rev. and expanded. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Created by: Diana Franz