Count Nouns and Non-Countable (Mass) Nouns – Simple Solutions to a Major Problem for ESL Students

The concept of distinguishing between objects that can and cannot be counted does not exist in many languages and this results in severe bafflement when speakers of those languages write in English.

Examples of mass and count nouns:

Count nouns:


  • A pencil: three pencils
  • A frog: three frogs
  • A minister: three ministers.


Mass nouns are uncomfortable with numbers:


  • A confusion: three confusions (No. “How much confusion”)
  • An air: three airs (No, “How much air”)
  • A misery: three miseries (No, “How much misery”)
  • A research: three researches (No, “How much research”)


Many nouns can be both count and mass nouns, often with different meanings.



  • How much paper? (24 reams, boxes, rolls of paper)
  • How many papers? (He published three papers on invertebrate alcoholism last year)




  • How much oil? (one quart)
  • How many oils? (olive oil, corn oil, linseed oil – three oils.)




  • Much mystery surrounds the case of the giant rat of Sumatra.
  • There are probably many more mysteries set in English country houses than murders in all of Yorkshire.




  • Not much thought has been given to making cats amphibious.
  • Did Rupert have any thoughts about wearing gaudy socks in the parade?


The Web Searching Solution

When in doubt about the countability of a noun, one could just compare the result count from a search for “much [noun]”to that from a search for “many [noun]s”. The search, “many confusions”yielded 55,900, while “much confusion”produced 774,000. While searching “how much”with most countable nouns will reveal clearly that the noun does not function as a mass noun (“how much pencil”, “how much bicycle”, “how much flagpole”), this process is not always reliable because, as demonstrated above, some nouns can be both countable and non-countable. The respective counts of “many thoughts”and “much thought”do not differ greatly. In these cases, a targeted search and an examination of context is probably best.

Frequently the excerpts Google presents are perfectly adequate for understanding usage and there is no need to visit the pages found as demonstrated in the following excerpts from the first page of results of a search restricted to academic sites in the UK.

Searched: “many thoughts are”


Within a given conceptual space, many thoughts are possible, only some of which may have been actually thought. 

As many thoughts are in my mind: As wavelets o’er thee roam;: As many wounds are in my heart: As thou hast flakes of foam. But if heaven’s constellations

One problem of this work is that too many thoughts are embedded in a single character-mind. It is often difficult to identify to whom each thought…


Searched: “much thought is”


much thought is already being given to the social and economic implications of these changes. 

Much thought is given to the dating and composition of Weissenburg’s cartulary, which is put in the context of Louis the German’s attempts to acquire…

But modern versions of RTM assume that much thought is not grounded in mental images. The classic contemporary treatment maintains, instead, 


The resultant phrases reveal clearly how the word is used in context.

Remember, mass nouns do not take indefinite articles and are quantified by:


“how much [noun]”or “how little [noun]”and “more [noun] “, “less [noun], all that [noun] or the amount of [noun]”


while countable nouns use:


“how many [noun]s”or “how few [noun]s”, “more [noun]s”, “fewer [noun]s”or the quantity of [noun]s.


Note that the comparative form “more”is used with both countable and non-countable nouns. Purists maintain that “fewer”should always be the comparative form used with countable nouns but the use of “less”in these contexts is increasing: “Oatmeal has less calories than granola”. When searched, the count was: “less calories”, 491,000 and “fewer calories”, 6,060,000. It will be interesting to see how these numbers change over time.

There are some sticky areas however. Some count nouns, when used in plural, and particularly when large quantities are discussed, tend to be treated as mass nouns. Phrases such as “the amount of lentils”(460,000,000) tend to compete well with the more correct “the quantity of lentils”(475,000,000). With more abstract nouns, this is even more evident. chosing