Monday, October 26, 2015

Making uncountable nouns countable

When we teach countable and uncountable nouns, we often give examples of foods and drinks – an apple vs. a carton of milk. As much as they are necessary particularly for learners at lower levels, we should also teach other vocabulary items that might be confusing for the learners considering the fact that some words that are uncountable in English have countable equivalents in other languages. The following might be a good example of this:

Travel and journey have very similar meanings, but travel is normally uncountable (it means ‘travelling in general’, and we do not talk about ‘a travel’), while journey is countable (a journey is one particular movement from one place to another) and can have a plural: journeys.
  • I like travel, but it’s often tiring.  
  • Did you have a good journey?
Often we can make an uncountable word countable by putting ‘a piece of‘ or a similar expression in front of it.
  • He never listens to advice.            
  • Can I give you a piece of advice?

Here are some other examples of general/particular pairs.

accommodation
a place to live (NOT an accommodation)
baggage
a piece/item of baggage; a case/trunk/bag
bread
a piece/loaf of bread; a loaf; a roll
chess
a game of chess
chewing gum
a piece of chewing gum (NOT a chewing gum)
equipment
a piece of equipment; a tool etc.
furniture
a piece/article of furniture; a table, chair etc.
information
a piece of information
knowledge
a fact
lightning
a flash of lightning
luck
a piece/bit/stroke of luck
luggage
a piece/item of luggage; a case/trunk/bag
money
a note; a coin; a sum
news
a piece of news
poetry
a poem
progress
a step forward; an advance
publicity
an advertisement
research
a piece of research; an experiment
rubbish
a piece of rubbish
slang
a slang word/expression
thunder
a clap of thunder
traffic
cars etc.
vocabulary
a word/expression
work
a job; a piece of work

One easy way of using this is giving students the list of non-count nouns above and encourage them to think of different ways of making them countable. Then you can discuss their suggestions and use the above list as a reference/example. How can you use this in your class?

The list and the examples were taken from Swan, M. (2005). Practical English usage. Oxford Univ. Press.