In my last post on this subject, we looked at certain types of nouns that are non-countable—they can’t be assigned a number, and can only be measured in volume. Types of nouns that are measured only in volume and not in number include things that are gas, things that are liquid, grains, and solid substances.
There are still other nouns that can’t be measured at all. Nouns that label unmeasurable things are also non-countable. These nouns fall into several different categories. Read about each type of un-measurable non-countable noun below.
Abstract concepts can’t be measured at all. There’s no real way to feel two sadnesses, and if something is popular, you can’t really say it has a lot of popularities.
Examples: anger, energy, popularity, charisma, design, misunderstanding, surprise
Academic subjects and professional fields
Academic subjects are a little more clearly defined than abstract concepts. But they’re still not exactly concrete— it’s hard to tell where exactly biology ends and physical science begins, for instance. So academic disciplines obviously can’t be measured in distinctly separate units either. No one would say they want to major in a bunch of histories at their university. They’d just major in history.
Professional fields are pretty much the same as academic subjects. They are abstract in the sense that they can’t be measured, but concrete in the sense that professional activities have distinct characteristics. Like academic subjects, professional fields overlap with each other. To give just one example, sales and marketing have a lot in common.
For that matter, professional fields overlap with academic subjects. Business administration is a job, a degree path, and a field of research. Science involves teaching, but also involves working in laboratories, product development teams, etc…
Examples: economics, management, IT, computer programming, nuclear physics, history, English literature, retail
Activities can describe just about anything people do—what they do for fun, what they do at their job, and even things people do without trying, such as breathing. And of course, activity nouns can also refer to the actions and behavior of animals—the word “grazing” to refer to eating grass is one of many non-human activity nouns.
Examples: football, reading, walking, shopping, driving, judging/judgement, seeing/sight, migrating, spawning
Like professional fields, languages can double as academic subjects. For example in this moment right now, you’re studying English. On the surface, languages appear to be more clearly defined than academic subjects or professional fields. But they really aren’t. Swedish and Norwegian have so many similar words that it’s hard to tell exactly how they are truly separate languages. And then there are languages like Chinese that could be seen as one or more than one language, with the large differences between dialects such as Cantonese and Mandarin. So nouns that label languages have the same non-countable features as academic disciplines.
Examples: English, Italian, Arabic, q-BASIC, binary, html (Notice that these examples include artificial computer languages)
Physical/medical conditions or treatments
Health conditions and treatments are another class of things that are easy to define, but very difficult to measure or count. Take cancer. If someone has cancer and the cancer gets worse, it’s not right to say they are getting more cancers. Cancer is a condition affects someone’s entire body and can’t be counted in distinctly separate parts. Extending that cancer example, cancer patients my receive radiation treatment, but it would sound strange to say they got radiation treatments— this medical intervention is an ongoing attempt to cure cancer, not a group of distinctly separate items.
Examples: cancer, surgery, obesity, illness, exercise, exhaustion, alertness
Phenomena (that do not have a clear shape, boundary or time limit)
This category of non-countable noun can be a little tricky. Phenomena are facts and situations that are observable but are not always measurable or countable. Fire, fermentation, tornadoes and earthquakes are all phenomena.
Here’s where it gets complicated: Certain phenomena such as tornadoes and earthquakes, clearly can be measured and counted. Tornadoes have a clear shape and operate separately—in extremely bad weather, it’s possible for there to be several different tornadoes in one area. Earthquakes have specific time limits (two short earthquakes, one longer one).
So if you’re going to treat a phenomenon (that’s the singular form of phenomena) as a non-countable noun, you need to make sure it really does not have a clear shape or limit.
Examples: fire, weather, combustion, rain, smoke
As you can see from reading about nouns that label phenomena, non-countable categories of nouns can become countable in certain contexts. In my next post on non-countable nouns, we’ll look at all of the different ways that a non-countable noun can become countable.