My Way of Recognizing Count and Non-Count Nouns

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I had taught the lesson many times.

You can count apples, but you can’t count water, so you say how many apples and how much water. You can count people, but you can’t count sand, so you say fewer people and less sand.

I’d go over and over the lists of nouns that were count and non-count. I could often see the confusion in their eyes. Yet, a simple question from a student changed the way I teach this concept and got rid of most of the puzzled looks.

The question?

The student asked,

“Teacher, you say that we ask ‘How much money do you have?’ Why don’t we say, ‘How many money?’ We can count money.”

My first reaction was, “He’s right! English doesn’t make sense.” I thought some more, and then I was able to say, “No, he’s wrong,” which led me down a path that gave me a different approach to this lesson.

Here is where the student was wrong. You don’t count money; you count dollars, lira, yuan, and quetzals. That is why you say, “How much money?”

Whether you use how much, how many, fewer, and less depends on how you answer the question. If you use the same noun in the question as you do in the answer, then you say many and fewer. If the noun in the answer is different, then you use much and less.

So if you use the same thing to count the noun as the noun, it is a count noun. If you use something different to count it, it is non-count:

  • You use cups to count sugar and coffee. Slices count bread. Kilograms measure meat.
  • Marbles count marbles. People count people.

I tried this out on my students and they seemed to get it every time: “How much time did it take for you to get to work today?”
“It took me 25 minutes, 10 fewer minutes than yesterday.”
“Oh, you spent less time than yesterday?”

Then I got to Istanbul. There is usually a student who knows how to trip you up. He asked about fish. The rule worked like a charm. I could say, “How much fish do you want?” and the answer would be, “Three pieces, please.” However, I could say, “How many fish did you catch?” and the answer would be, “Three fish.”

Which brings us to cattle. Do you say “how much cattle do you have” or “how many?” Using the principle in this post, if you say “10 cattle,” then it is many, but if you say, “10 head of cattle,” then it’s much. Of course, one could argue that “head of” is implied in the question. In some cases, who cares? If it’s confusing to us, then why try to confuse our students. When I hear reporters on television and radio getting it wrong, perhaps that’s a sign that our language is changing.

What are some tried and true tips you use to teach your students?

Hi, I’m John Stevens. After adventures working in radio and television, teaching computer courses in Canada and internationally, managing the Canadian Association of Journalists, and acting as the technical director of Softball Canada, I have settled into teaching ESL. As well as experiences teaching in Ottawa and London, I have had stints in Harbin, Jeddah and Istanbul. Since I am currently trying to find a full-time teaching position in Ontario, I help my wife with our bed and breakfast business in St. Marys, Ontario.


3 thoughts on “My Way of Recognizing Count and Non-Count Nouns”

  1. Excellent share on count & non-count nouns, as well as, much & many
    Thanks for sharing, John.

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