In looking at many of the answers to ESL learner's questions about countable and uncountable nouns it seems that answers usually take the form "Uncountables can be become countables. There's no rule so you just have to memorize it. It's English, you know, deal with it." (said with an exasperated sigh.)

I think there is a rule. How else would we be able to generate sentences in situations that haven't been memorized?

My question is this: "Is it possible the rules are: 1)'When we omit the counter based on context, a normally uncountable noun will become countable by adding s or using countable grammar forms. and 2) A word can become uncountable if it also has an uncountable definition." (Rule two seems obvious however someone asked about "organic matter" or "organic matters" being tested at the lab.)

For example:

Rule 1:

1) "I'll have two (glasses of) waters." (said in a restaurant.) 2) We sell many (loaves of / types of / kinds of) breads." (said at the bakery.) 3) "Do you want three (packets of) sugars?" (Said at Starbucks.) 4) "How many (sheets of) papers are stuck in the copier?" (Said in my office last week.) 5) "How many (pieces of) hairs were stuck on the camera sensor?" (said at B&H Photo.)

Rule 2:

1) "We need three (instances of) approvals from the committee before construction can begin." or "My mother didn't give her approval to our lifestyle." 2) "I like having (many kinds of) choices at the grocery store." "Choice is what made America great."

On the the other hand, I can think of three instances where the rule breaks down: "Music," "Lint" "Equipment":

"I listened to 3 (types of) musics this morning." "Ask the butler to remove the (pieces of) lints from the sweater." "How many (kinds of) equipments does a SEAL need for a mission?"

Some omissions are just strange; "I gave the baby a teaspoon of apple." I think it should be "I gave the baby a teaspoon of apple sauce." because teaspoons hold liquids and powders not solid objects like (pieces of) apple.

There must be some sort of rule about what is acceptable communication when it comes to countable and uncountable nouns.

  • In all of your "rule 1" examples, you used mass nouns that can be divided into discrete portions. In your "rule 2" examples you used _abstract nouns which can have singular instances Neither of these is a "rule". As you noted with the apple and the music, some nouns, whether concrete or abstract, are not used for either the divided or instance sense. apple, however, is not a mass noun, so one speaks of a piece of apple. Also a piece of music. Or pie. Or cake. Or a million other nouns. But you could give a baby "some" apple, or "some applesauce" on a teaspoon. Sep 1 '15 at 9:19
  • The 'rules' are rules of thumb; English is often idiosyncratic. 'I'll have two beers' is colloquial but widely accepted; 'I'll have two waters' sounds unnatural to myself and others on other websites (and is ambiguous); 'I'll have two mixeds' is outlandish. Have a look at other threads here; there seem to be intermediate usages ('A paralyzing horror overwhelmed him.' / *'Two paralyzing horrors overwhelmed them.'); 'Blue-green algae is/are present in the lake.' And why is fruit (mass) given singular agreement, but vegetables (mass) not? Sep 1 '15 at 11:36
  • 1
    Virtually any noun can become countable in the right context.
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 1 '15 at 12:23

I think the rule (or one of the rules) you're looking for here is that some countable nouns in foreign languages are uncountable in English. This is apparent in nouns such as music. However, as far as I know, there is really no solid way to figure out which words these are — you just have to memorize them.

Additionally, another rule that pertains to switching between countable and uncountable nouns is one of plurality: In English, several words are uncountable when plural but countable when singular (e.g. hair).

  • Did you mean to say that some countable nouns in a foreign lamguage are uncountable in English? Sep 1 '15 at 9:21

I agree with E. Ashworth. "I'll have two waters," sounds like asking for two types of water, although, in context, it could means servings or containers of water.

  • "I see you got your hair cut." Reply: "More than one!"
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 31 '15 at 20:13

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