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Is "potential" a countable noun? Consider these sentences:

The teachings are dispensed according to the audience's potentials?

The teachings are dispensed according to the audience's levels of potential?

The teachings are dispensed according to the audience's potentials?

  • "Potential" may occur as a plural (for some) , but that doesn't mean it's a count noun. It's a non-count noun since it cannot combine with the cardinal numbers "one, two, three" etc. There's no *"two/three/potentials". – BillJ Apr 3 '18 at 19:15
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    @Barmar, the question shouldn't have been edited as it made total sense and the nature of what is been asked has changed. The question wasn't whether the 3 questions were correct or not; furthermore the first and last question are the same. – aesking Apr 3 '18 at 19:39
  • @aesking I couldn't make sense of the question as originally written, unless he was asking which is more correct. And the duplication was in the original. – Barmar Apr 3 '18 at 19:43
  • It's countable in the same sense that "measurement" is countable. – Hot Licks Apr 3 '18 at 19:50
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    My question is: Countable nouns have a singular and plural form. Is it really a countable noun when its only a countable noun in its plural form? – aesking Apr 3 '18 at 20:25
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Yes, in some cases it is countable, example from Oxford Dictionary Online:

[count noun] ‘the potentials of the technology were never wholly controllable’

Also as a quantity (for example in physics or maths) it can be countable, example from Oxford Dictionary Online:

‘Electrical action potentials, osmotic perturbations or chemical signals may trigger these waves.’

In mathematics (or science in general) you could say scalar potentials to refer to more than one scalar potential. An example of this can be found here (lecture notes from the School of Physics and Astronomy of the University of Edinburgh).

Attribution: "Potential | Definition of Potential in English by Oxford Dictionaries." Oxford Dictionaries | English. Accessed April 03, 2018. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/potential.

In your case, however, I would refer to this example from Oxford Dictionary Online and recommend the singular version in your sentence because you refer to the potential of the audience as a whole:

‘You could say that we can compare our capabilities and potential to that of an iceberg!’

So in your sentence that would be (without the s):

The teachings are dispensed according to the audience's potential

  • How can it be in some cases? In the cases where it is not a countable noun, how is that possible? "Uncountable nouns have no plural". Therefore, couldn't it be argued that 'potentials' is a different word in meaning altogether? – aesking Apr 3 '18 at 20:41
  • @aesking potential is one word with different meanings, with some meanings it's countable, some it's not. In this case you could even argue it depends on what you mean: the potential of the audience as a whole (1) or the potential of all the individual audience members individually (2). – JJJ Apr 3 '18 at 20:46
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    I'm going to disagree with ODO here. While I agree that the physics usage is count (eg 'Significance of two potentials for predicting successful catheter ablation from the left sinus of Valsalva for left ventricular epicardial tachycardia.' {NCBI}, the first usage mentioned here is non-count as 'two / 316 / several potentials of the technology were never wholly controllable' is not acceptable. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 3 '18 at 21:43
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    @aesking As discussed in many previous threads, many nouns have both count and non-count usages (and what is considered acceptable keeps on changing). It is at best very risky to speak of 'non-count nouns'. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 3 '18 at 21:46
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    @HotLicks you can speak of capabilities with a singular subject. For example, you have many capabilities, when you were younger you had the potential to develop those capabilities. – JJJ Apr 3 '18 at 22:20
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Potential cannot be counted at all, nor can it be measured specifically. Thus 'the teachings are dispensed according to the audience's potentials?' is correct.

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    It does not compute! – Hot Licks Apr 3 '18 at 19:51
  • Welcome to EL&U. Sweeping statements should be backed up with suitable examples or references, and in fact, almost every non-count noun can be used in a countable way in some contexts. Consider, for instance, a business setting where potential might refer to prospective clients or customers; it would be quite ordinary to have a weekly meeting to discuss the potentials in the pipeline or some such. – choster Apr 3 '18 at 19:55
  • So if shown a electrical circuit, an engineer cannot measure the potentials between points A & B, C & D, et al? And there can't be more than one of those things, regardless of how many measuring points there are in the circuit? – Hot Licks Apr 3 '18 at 20:16
  • @Hotlicks me and Annie were referring to the context of the question asked. you are talking about a different type of potential than we are. – aesking Apr 3 '18 at 22:27
  • @aesking - That 35-year old person there has the potential to become president, but, standing 4 feet tall, he does not have to potential to become the world's tallest person. Two different potentials for one person. – Hot Licks Apr 3 '18 at 22:48
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The original sample line (or at least 2 out of 3):

The teachings are dispensed according to the audience's potentials

The question appears to hinge on whether this would better stated as:

The teachings are dispensed according to the audience's potential

These mean two different things.

In the first case the implication is that the "teachings" are "personalized" for each audience member, based on his/her "potential".

In the second case the implication is that the "teachings" will be somehow adjusted based on an overall analysis of the "potential" of the audience as a whole.

Looking at the other sample line:

The teachings are dispensed according to the audience's levels of potential?

This is just a slightly more awkward to say "... audience's potentials".

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A countable noun has to be measurable. The noun 'potential' cannot be physically measured as tables and chairs can, nor does it have a quantity - regardless of the words placed before it or the context. If 5 people in audience have potential, then the countable noun isn't potential but 'people'.

It suits the definition of an abstract noun more, as potential is a subjective thing-in terms of definition and qualifying characteristics of what it means to have potential.

  • So is "measurement" countable?? – Hot Licks Apr 3 '18 at 19:50
  • Idea is countable. How do you customarily measure the physical dimensions of an idea? – choster Apr 3 '18 at 19:57
  • @choster. Easy. If a person has 5 ideas then you count how many ideas they have. You don't measure the physical dimension but the number of. That makes it physically measurable, I'd say. – aesking Apr 3 '18 at 19:59
  • @aesking You open your answer by stating a "a countable noun has to be physically measurable," however. Moreover, almost every non-count noun can be used in a count sense, for example, when discussion portions, examples, or varieties of something— hence wines, joys, infinities, etc. – choster Apr 3 '18 at 20:02
  • @Choster "almost every non-count noun can be used in a count sense." I thought we were talking about the word 'potenital' and not its plural form and what it could be. Therefore the noun 'potential' isn't a count noun like wines, joys and infinities. Countable nouns have a singular and plural form. Is it really a countable noun when its only a countable noun in its plural form? – aesking Apr 3 '18 at 20:17

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