Cambridge dictionaries use various labels and codes, among them are:

[C] Countable noun: a noun that has a plural.

[U] Uncountable or singular noun: a noun that has no plural.

[S] A singular noun.

I do not understand the difference between a singular noun and the singular form of a countable noun. For example, with the entry "word"

sense 1: noun [C] a single unit of language which has meaning and can be spoken or written

sense n: noun [S] a brief discussion or statement: The manager wants a word.

What if the manager wants to have several discussions? Is it impossible for us to say "The manager wants some words." because "word" here is singular? I am confused.

  • 3
    That's what singular means. You can't use "word" in that sense in the plural.
    – Færd
    Commented Aug 2, 2016 at 4:32
  • 1
    @Færd You should make that an answer—it’s a lot more correct than the two answers given below. Commented Apr 29, 2017 at 11:57
  • @Janus Someone else lifted the burden. Phew.
    – Færd
    Commented Apr 30, 2017 at 18:06
  • It's an attempt to handle the fact that some usages are (according to CGEL) non-count but do accept an indefinite article. From a blinding light / blinding sunlight / a blinding sunlight?: "The use of 'a' before a noun is not seen as a sufficient marker for a count usage by say CGEL. So 'He took a pride in his appearance' is not seen as a count usage (*'He/They took 2/17/several/half a dozen prides in ...')." In 'The manager wants a word', as 3/16/some' cannot be inserted ... Commented Jun 8, 2020 at 16:11
  • (with words, of course), the usage is best classed as non-count. (There is a complication with this set phrase; 'a couple of words' might be seen. Perhaps a 'quasi-count' label is best, compare '600 police were present' but not '2 police were present'..) Commented Jun 8, 2020 at 16:12

3 Answers 3


As Færd mentioned in their comment, word in that specific meaning (the manager wants a word) cannot be used in a plural form.

Actually, having words with someone means you are having a fight with them. In that sense, words is not used in the singular.

You picked a word that has many meanings, and that is used in a lot of idiomatic expressions. Those idiomatic expressions can look very similar but still convey a vastly different meaning.

  • The OP might also find it illuminating that having a word with somebody does not put any limitations on how many words you're going to say to them. Those two 'word's are different. The former can't be used in the plural, but the latter can.
    – Færd
    Commented Apr 30, 2017 at 18:06

We are referring to a PHRASE here please. “Could I have a word with you?” This query simply means may I speak to you, and it’s used in a very special situation. Say when you are in a group of people, there are many people all around, may be in a conference with your business- associates / co-workers etc. and you want to talk to just one person from that group alone, privately without the other people knowing or listening.

Hence the query “could I have a word with you” is a humble, subtle and rather indirect method to express to that person that you want to speak with to him/her alone.

  • This does not answer the question. Commented Apr 29, 2017 at 11:55

I believe to have "a word" with someone is used as a prepositional phrase. Prepositional phrases sometimes disregard grammatical logic or even literal.

You wouldn't actually think the manager wishes to partake with you a word as if it can be held in your hands and physically use it.

Yes, your manager could have several discussions with you and it can still be denoted as " he wants to have a word with you". Remember it isn't literal (also I think it's a prepositional phrase) so concordance of number in this case does not apply.

A singular noun is one unit of something. "Water" is a singular noun. It is also a non-countable noun. You can't count how many "waters" we have. That's ridiculous. There are exceptions such as in the case of titles (The waters of Edmonton), usage in poems, etc.

Then you have singular countable nouns like "apple, word, human, table". Again, singular non-countable nouns: "water, sand, air, oxygen)

But you also have singular collective nouns like "group, team, flock" which can be turned into plural "groups, teams, flocks).

You also have noun phrases, but I would be steering away from the subject.

  • This is completely incorrect. A word is a noun phrase, not a prepositional phrase. There is no preposition in it. Prepositional phrases also don’t disregard grammatical logic any more than any other syntactic elements do. There is no formal, syntactic difference between the normal singular form of the count noun word and the specific sense meaning “a brief discussion”; the only difference is semantic, and the restriction to the singular is purely based in semantics. And yes, you can count how many waters we have—water is countable in some of its senses, and not just in titles or poetry. Commented Apr 29, 2017 at 11:56

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