Why is 'traffic' an uncountable noun while 'traffic jam' is a countable noun?

I have asked many people and also googled but didn't get a satisfactory answer

  • I think you have the beginnings of an interesting question here. Can you maybe show a bit of research and expand upon it?
    – David M
    Oct 11, 2019 at 3:13
  • 'Cattle' is usually seen as a 'non-count noun', and is certainly normally used in a non-count way. But 'cattle breeder', 'cattle drive', 'cattle egret', 'cattle grid', 'cattle market', 'cattle prod', 'cattle ranch, 'cattle rustler', 'cattle shed', 'cattle show', 'cattle truck' etc are compound nouns which are thankfully (from a linguistics perspective) count. There's nothing remarkable about 'traffic jams'. 'Water buffaloes /coolers / levels / mains / wheels ... // cutlery boxes / milk shakes / rice puddings (not that 'milks' and 'rices' don't exist).... The second noun controls countness. Oct 12, 2019 at 15:48
  • To a large degree. Not, apparently, with Emails. And then 'light' is often used in count fashion, but 'moonlight' (I'll risk) never. 'Makings' is known, but 'glassmakings'? Oct 12, 2019 at 16:07

1 Answer 1


A traffic jam refers to a discrete event so it can be counted. Traffic refers to a collective thing and so it can't be counted.

The basic answer is that uncountable nouns are uncountable because you can't count them, they don't refer to discrete things and don't have a plural version. Countable nouns are single items or events and have plural versions.

  • 2
    If I have four slices of bread, and I put them in the toaster, why don't I get four toasts? If I go to a concert, and they play a suite by Bartok, a concerto by Beethoven, and a symphony by Mozart, why haven't I heard three musics? If I have a kiwi, a mango, and three strawberries, why don't I have five fruits? I can count all these things. Maybe your answer explains the way that countable/uncountable works in some languages, but not in English. Oct 10, 2019 at 21:31
  • You're counting the slices/pieces of toast/music not counting toast or counting music. For fruit it's a bit tricky because you can count types of fruit using just "fruit" so with a kiwi, a mango, and three strawberries you have 5 pieces of fruit but 3 fruits.
    – Mike
    Oct 10, 2019 at 21:37
  • I don't know any other languages so I can't give answers about other languages handle nouns that are single things vs uncountable things. Is there a specific language you want it compared to? if so maybe add that to your own answer.
    – Mike
    Oct 10, 2019 at 21:37
  • 1
    Thanks a lot Mike. Your answer was really helpful and it was very kind of you. Oct 10, 2019 at 21:48
  • 1
    The point @PeterShor is trying to make, if I may be so presumptuous, is that it's not perfectly logical, countability is not identical to discreteness.
    – Mitch
    Oct 10, 2019 at 23:21

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