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Many difficulties or much difficulty: Differentiating between count and non-count nouns

I have pursued the intricate aspects of nouns for two weeks, yet this wide-word class leaves us with much more to be demystified. One of the characteristics of the noun is number. This is in addition to other features such as case, gender and capitalisation.

The last two treatises focused on the pluralisation system of the noun, but attention has not been given to the thin line between countable and uncountable nouns. This piece will essentially account for nouns that can be adjudged countable and uncountable, as well as the grammatical-cum-communicative contexts that permit such dual functions.

For starters, it should be mentioned that abstract nouns (nouns that cannot be seen) are not always uncountable, and concrete nouns (nouns that can be seen) are not always countable. For example, the nouns “blessing” and “idea” are abstract nouns, yet they can be counted.

The former is used in Edwin O. Excell’s song, “Count your many blessings; name them one by one; and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.” There are, however, several abstract nouns that can be countable in some contexts and uncountable when used in other ways. One such noun is “difficulty”. On the one hand, when this noun means the fact of not being easy to do or understand, it is considered uncountable:

She mentioned the difficulties of reading for eight hours at a stretch (non-standard).

She mentioned the difficulty of reading for eight hours at a stretch (standard).

On the other hand, it can be counted when it means “a problem”:

He has a financial difficulty (standard).

There are people with learning difficulties (standard).

Moving on, “experience” is another word that can be deployed as a countable and uncountable noun. As an uncountable noun, experience is the knowledge or skill acquired in a particular job or activity. Moreover, it is used to refer to the past events, knowledge, and feelings that make up someone’s life or character:

He has a managerial experience on every level (nonstandard).

He has managerial experience on every level (standard).

I have learnt from experience to let things happen naturally (standard).

Read also: Pluralising foreign nouns in English

As a countable noun, an experience is something that you do or that happens to you, especially something important that affects you:

Going to the mosque is a daily experience for me (standard).

It gets even more interesting! When some organisations experience a disruption in operational procedures or expectations, they apologise for the “inconveniences” their customers will experience, don’t they? Well, the truth is that when mentioning trouble, problems or difficulties, such organisations should actually apologise for the “inconvenience” (an uncountable noun) their customers will have to endure.

The dispatch bus broke down thirty minutes ago, and your goods will not arrive on time. I apologise for the inconveniences this situation will cause you (nonstandard).

The dispatch bus broke down thirty minutes ago, and your goods will not arrive on time. I apologise for the inconvenience this situation will cause you (standard).

That being said, “inconvenience” can be counted when you are referring to a person or thing that causes trouble, problems or difficulties, as in:

John is not only a latecomer, but also an inconvenience (standard).

Next, I shall discuss the noun ‘endeavour’. As a countable noun, it refers to an enterprise or an attempt towards goal attainment, as in:

Philip is the CEO of four business endeavours (standard).

This is an endeavour to teach the children coding (standard).

However, when you are referring to “earnest, prolonged and industrious effort”, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary of English, “endeavour” is decidedly uncountable thus:

Discipline is required in all human endeavours (non-standard).

Discipline is required in all human endeavour (standard).

Now, let us consider how collocations can affect the countability or otherwise of a noun. “Opportunity”, as an uncountable noun, refers to the degree or existence of opportunities. Thus, opportunity is usually uncountable when you use it alongside adjectives that indicate the degree or extent of something. Classic examples are “plenty of”, “limited”, “little” and “ample”.

I had an ample opportunity to conduct research on the US economy (non-standard).

I had ample opportunity to conduct research on the US economy (standard).

She had little opportunity to read the encyclopaedia (standard).

In the absence of such adjectives that indicate the extent of something, one can use opportunity as a countable noun:

This is a golden opportunity to discuss business with Mark Zuckerberg (standard).

We advocated improved educational opportunities for the children (standard).

For concrete nouns, I shall consider the usage of “fruit”. The general reader should keep in mind that, when used in the general sense, fruit is uncountable, as in:

She eats some fruits and vegetables every day (non-standard).

She eats some fruit and vegetables every day (standard).

However, when the emphasis is on a particular type of fruit, the noun can be counted and consequently pluralised, as in:

An orange is a citrus fruit (standard).

My father harvested tropical fruits like bananas and pineapples (standard).

It is important to also talk about “people”. This is the plural noun of “person”, and it refers to human beings in general:

People could be funny (standard).

However, “people” is considered countable and, therefore, pluralised as “peoples” when it refers to different societies of the world, as in:

Different tribes do this, and it is common, especially among the peoples of Africa (standard).

This piece cannot be adjudged to have exhaustively discussed count and non-count nouns in English. It is, nonetheless, another eye opener on the dynamics of pluralisation in English.

(c) Ganiu Abisoye Bamgbose (Dr GAB) is of the Department of English, University of Lagos.