A picture of a calculator to symoblise Understanding uncountable and plural nouns

Understanding uncountable and plural nouns once and for all!

One of the enduring problems for many IELTS test-takers is being able to use uncountable and plural nouns correctly. Today, Nick and I take a deep-dive into the common problems that IELTS test-takers make in their writing and speaking.

We will spend a lot of time discussing the definite article (the), so I strongly recommend that you watch our free grammar lesson so that you understand the 7 fundamental article rules. We have designed this lesson as an extension of the basics explained here as most problems with uncountable and plural nouns stem from a lack of understanding of basic article rules.

Below, you can find a summary of the episode, which includes all of the links to useful materials and the times of each part of the discussion (so you can go directly to the part you want to listen to)¬†ūüöÄ

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Uncountable and plural nouns – the absolute basics

A deep understanding of uncountable and plural nouns can only happen once you understand some fundamental principles about articles and nouns. What I am about to show you may seem very simplistic, but if you understand these basic rules, you can see why many of the mistakes that IELTS students make are so damaging to their Grammatical Range and Accuracy scores.

The indefinite articles (a / an. 

You can only use the indefinite article with one type of noun:

  • SINGULAR COUNTABLE NOUNS i.e. This is an apple ¬†/ This is a banana.

The definite articles (the)

You can use the definite article with any type of noun.

  • SINGULAR COUNTABLE NOUNS i.e. Please wash the apple.
  • PLURAL COUNTABLE NOUNS i.e. Pass me the books.
  • UNCOUNTABLE NOUNS i.e. The pollution in the city has got worse recently.

You will need to learn the basic 7 article rules to understand when “the” is appropriate and when it is not.

The zero article (√ė)

You can use this with two types of noun:

  • PLURAL COUNTABLE NOUNS i.e. Computers have changed the way we work.
  • UNCOUNTABLE NOUNS i.e. Obesity is a major problem today.

3 mistakes that break the basic uncountable and plural nouns rules

Just having an understanding of the above basic rules should be enough for you to understand the following common errors:

  1. Using the indefinitely article “a / an” with a PLURAL noun:¬†Many consumers buy a new phones every year.
  2. Using a SINGULAR noun in a sentence without an article (when it should really be a PLURAL!): Social media can spark people’s interest in good that they do not really need.
  3. Adding an “s” to an UNCOUNTABLE noun:¬†People are often swayed by advertisings.

The first two errors can happen with any noun (and I hope are just simple errors), but the third problem is common as many students are unaware which nouns are countable and which are uncountable. Why not test yourself now? Have a look at the following list of nouns and decide if they are countable (so, for example, you could have two of them or three of them), and which are uncountable. If they are uncountable, you will NOT be able to add an “s” to the noun:

  • equipment
  • furniture
  • homework
  • obesity
  • advice
  • information
  • environment
  • politics
  • media
  • news
  • luggage
  • behaviour
  • knowledge
  • money
  • research
  • evidence
  • work
  • rubbish

Well, what do you think? How many of those nouns can we count? The answer is none (although as we will discuss in the episode, environment and works can be countable in exceptional circumstances).¬†So, if you have been adding “s” to the end of “equipment” or “advice” or “work” (or any of the words in the list), you have been making a serious grammar mistakes!

Now, we can actually make some uncountable nouns countable by preceding the noun with a phrase that is countable. For example, you cannot count “bread” but you can count “loaves of bread” or “slices of bread”. Or, in the same way, we cannot count coffee, but we can count “cups of coffee”.

With many of the nouns in the above list, the magic phrase you will need to make the countable is “a piece of”. So, for instance, we can say “a piece of equipment” or a “piece of homework”. This does not work for every noun though, as we cannot say “a piece of obesity”!

Using “the” with a plural noun when it is not necessary

This is perhaps the number one “article” error that I see from high-level students. The sad thing is that the logic behind this mistake is actually sound! Good students have learned the following two article rules:

  • use ‚Äúthe‚ÄĚ when the noun is unique or already known (specific)
  • use ‚Äú√ė‚ÄĚ when we are talking in general

However, when they try to combine these rules, they make a fundamental error. Take this sentence for example. Why do you think the student has used “the” before the plural nouns here?

First, the employees working in separate rooms cannot quickly ask for some advice from the colleagues but, the people working in open-plan buildings are able to chat with one another all day long.

Well, I think in each case the student has thought “I am not talking about ALL” things here, I am talking about a specific group of things.

  • For example, for the first article, they thought “I am not talking about all employees, I am talking about¬†employees working in separate rooms“.¬†
  • And for the second article, the student has thought “I am not talking about ALL colleagues, only those who work with people in a separate room”.
  • And, for the third article, they thought “I am not talking about ALL people, I am talking about “people working in open-plan buildings”.

However, the students has fundamentally misunderstood what we mean by “speaking in general”. In the first example, the group is NOT “all employees” but “all employees who work in a separate room”. We are talking in general about all the people all over the world who have the experience of working from their own office. They are the general group (not “employees”, which is too general!).

In fact, if you add “the” and say “the employees who work from home”, you are now referring to a specific group of people working from home. A smaller group that the reader is supposed to know (presumably because they know their names and you have spoken about them before). This is clearly not true. We are talking about ANY person who works from an office, not a specific group.

The same is true for examples two and three. In number two, we were talking about getting advice from ANY colleague and in the third we are talking about the fact that ANY people who work in an open-plan office can chat. Do not make this error!

Every time you add “the” before a plural noun, you are telling the reader that you are talking about a smaller sub-group that the reader personally knows!

This is not an easy concept to understand, so in the episode Nick and I will discuss the following sentences to determine if they are correct or not correct (as a hint, one of the sentences is correct):

    1. Advocates of the group activities argue that they teach children a range of communication skills
    2. Millions of people working will have to retrain to learn the new skills required for those professions not replaced by machines. (defined by a relative clause)
    3. The environmental problems are the chief drawback of cars.
    4. Many people today suffer from the obesity because of the consumption of fast food.


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