You Have Forgotten How to Count! The Grammar Mistake You’re Making Right Now

Sounds rich, coming from an English major, right? Who am I to tell you that you’ve forgotten how to count? Well, this is one mistake I hear all the time. I’ve found it is said more than written, but it’s a mistake nonetheless. Usually, it comes from confusion about what is being counted. 

Like most rules, there are exceptions. Here, the exceptions come in one of two forms: common use and literary. Yes, creative writing does allow you some leeway with the rules of grammar, as long as it is understandable, makes sense, and doesn’t detract from your plotline. 

There are dozens of articles out there on the mechanics of this rule, so I won’t go into exhaustive examples, but I will give you a peek behind the scenes at the why behind this rule and how you can avoid breaking it in the future. If you want to memorize a list of words, there are posts out there that list them. 

What I’m going to do though is give you techniques so you don’t have to memorize those lists! 

Some nouns are countable and some are uncountable. 

What’s the difference? Take a look at the table below and then at the explanations for each type of noun. I have used sheep as an example because I enjoy knitting and I especially like wool. Marvelous stuff if you aren’t allergic to it. 

Countable NounsUncountable NounsCollective Nouns
SheepWoolFlock
1 sheep, 2 sheep, 3 sheepI have a pound of wool. I have 3 flocks of sheep. 

Countable Nouns

Most of the nouns you run into are countable nouns. This means you can literally sit down with a pile of them and count them out. Not that I would recommend you do that with sheep. You’d get PETA or the RSPCA on you. Not to mention it’s just a dastardly way to treat sheep. 

Anyway, you can count sheep.

Uncountable Nouns

What you cannot count is the wool sheep produce. You have to measure it, and then count the measurements. Which means wool is an uncountable noun. 

Uncountable nouns are abstract terms that refer to a single entity made up of individual parts or concepts. Nouns that designate emotion, for instance, love, anger, and despair, are uncountable nouns. Other things like rice, sand, and fields of study are also uncountable nouns. 

Most of these nouns don’t formally have plural forms. Substances like wool, water, sand, rice, dirt, gas, and so forth have to be measured. It’s the measurements you’re counting, not the substances themselves. 

Collective Noun

Collective nouns are words used to describe a group of things that are together to form something else. In our case, our base example was a sheep. If we now have a flock, we have 3 or more sheep. 

There are other examples I could use too. Family is another collective noun and refers to a group of people who are in a familiar relationship with one another, whether that’s parents, grandparents, children, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. 

If you’ll notice too, collective nouns are also countable nouns. YOu can have more than one flock of sheep, just as you can have more than one family. 


The fix? You aren’t counting what you think you’re counting. 

Here’s the tricky bit. How can you tell the difference between countable and uncountable nouns? 

Try this fix: Uncountable nouns usually have units attached to them. Let’s look at our example again. 

Countable NounUncountable NounCollective Noun
SheepWoolFlock
1 sheep, 2 sheep, 3 sheepI have a pound of wool. I have 3 flocks of sheep. 

Ok, so you can count sheep. Highly recommended for insomnia, if Shaun the Sheep is to be believed. 

So, what about wool? How do you count wool? Well, if you look at the sample sentence: I have a pound of wool, you will find that wool is part of a prepositional phrase. 

This is because the actual thing we’re counting is pound, not wool. We’re counting the unit of measurement used to calculate how much wool we have. So, it could be a pound of wool, a skein of wool, a bale of wool, or a bag of wool. 

What about things that aren’t measured? Well, can you subdivide it? If you can subdivide it, for instance, into types, disciplines, practices, and theories, then you also might have an uncountable noun on your hands. Psychology is a good example of an uncountable noun you can’t measure, but you can subdivide. 

The exceptions to the rule are not so simple or finite, but nearly always literary. 

Yes, there are exceptions to this rule too. Crazy English, right? I could devote an entire blog post just to why there are so many exceptions to English in the first place, and no, it’s not just because it’s a gangster language that rifles through other languages’ pockets for loose grammar. 

Keep in mind how flexible English is as a language. You only have to add an -s or an -es to make something plural—even if the word doesn’t formally have a plural. 

So, when will you see uncountable nouns used as countable nouns? 

Literary Exceptions

Some of the most common ones you’ll run across are watersand, and love. C. S. Lewis used “love” as a counted noun in his work The Four Loves. Why use that as an example? Because The Four Loves talks about types of love. 

Also, if you were using loves to mean people I have loved, that is also acceptable. In fact, it’s a figure of speech we call synecdoche

Yes, you can indeed use uncounted nouns like counted nouns in writing. Why? Because it’s creative license. As long as it makes sense for your character, or story, or has a specific purpose, then you are free and clear.

But make sure it’s intentional and understandable for your reader. 

Common usage exceptions

When you go into a restaurant and order “a water,” you are technically incorrect, but you are using the word water as if you mean “glass of water” or whatever unit of water the restaurant offers. This is a natural and normal shortcut that English speakers often use. 

Again, the unit of water is understood in this context. Same as if you stop at a gas station on a long road trip for “a water” it’s understood you’re getting a bottle of water. Or, if you’re refilling my water, you’re actually refilling your water bottle. 

So, the next time you get a bottle of water stop and think about what you’re counting!


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2 thoughts on “You Have Forgotten How to Count! The Grammar Mistake You’re Making Right Now

  1. Gah, I have to admit, I’m terrible at these technicalities. I usually just go by feel, which probably isn’t best practice for a writer, lol. But it’s these kinda things that interest me! I remember looking at my ex-colleagues (in auditing) read books on tax practices for the year. They found it so interesting and I couldn’t imagine why. Now I know. We just need to find our subject 😛

    Thanks for putting this together!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading! I usually go by instinct too. But, as I’m finding out, there are good instincts and there are bad instincts and lots of mediocre and even sloppy writing, if I may say, is floating around on the internet these days and that does tend to skew perceptions about what is good and bad grammar. So, back to the rulebook it is only this time there’s a lot more detail we have to add!

      Like

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