Countable vs uncountable nouns

The third nounal opposition differentiates between the names of individuals (living beings and objects) which can be counted and those that cannot. Countables as compared with uncountables are able to be used with the indefinite article in the singular and have a plural form.

Common concrete class nouns are always countable: a man — men, bird — birds, a pen— pens. Proper nouns are usually uncountable with the exception of very few cases like two Marys. There were two Marys in our group. Concrete nouns denoting materials such as air, snow, gold, sugar are always uncountable though in cases like wine, water, sand plural forms are also recurrent: a wide choice of French wines, across the burning sands of the desert, fishing in Icelandic waters. Collective nouns con­stitute a special group of words which may be either co­untable or uncountable. Countables are as follows: family, crowd, committee, team, government, club, school, union, choir, orchestra, staff, jury, firm, the B.B.C., the Bank of England, etc. When used as subject of a sentence they can be associated with both singular and plural verb: Our family has/have lived in this house for over a century. The government wants/want to reduce taxes. Uncountable col­lective nouns fall into 2 groups. The first one comprises nouns which denote a number of things collected together and regarded as a single object: foliage, furniture, luggage, baggage, machinery, money, scenery. They take a singular verb: New machinery is being installed in the factory. Where is the money?— It is on the table. The second group consists of nouns expressing multitude: police, gentry, cattle, poultry. In a sentence they are used with a

plural verb: The police have caught the criminal. The cattle are in the shed.

Sometimes a word may be both countable and uncountable with a difference in meaning. The collective noun people is the case in point. It is countable in the sense of «a race or a nation» and uncountable in the meaning of «persons, human beings». Compare: Were there many people at the meeting? — The Chinese is a hard-working people. More examples of the kind: I bought a paper, (a newspaper) — I bought some paper, (material for writing); We had many interesting experiences during our day. (things that happened to us) — You need expe­rience for this job. (knowledge or skill which comes from practice).

Abstract nouns are most multifarious and irregular that makes them particularly difficult to classify as coun-tables or uncountables. This applies to any group they fall into. Those which indicate qualities (kindness, sadness, courage) are usually uncountable though some of them -may be both countable and uncountable. Compare: to succeed by strength of will — the strengths and weaknesses of the argument. As the example shows the uncountable noun may become countable if it is supposed to express an instance or instances of a certain quality. The same double nature can be observed in a number of abstract names referred to states, processes, generalized notions and periods of time: to have a fear of something — to fight without fear, to have a (telephone) conversation — to be in conversation with somebody, to move in the direction of London — to have a sense of direction, to be on holiday in summera hot summer.

At the same time certain abstract nouns denoting states, processes and generalized notions, such as beha­viour, chaos (states), progress, traffic, travel, business, work (states or processes), accommodation, advice, infor­mation, news, permission (generalized notions) are un­countable.

Yet quite a bit of nouns used to name periods of time are always countable: a minute, an hour, a week, a year, a century andso on.

Abstract names for phenomena may be either coun­table (storm, earthquake) or uncountable (weather, light­ning) or both: The crops need rain.A heavy rain began to fall.

Abstract nouns denoting fields of knowledge or acti­vities like linguistics, gymnastics are usually uncountable and take a singular verb: Linguistics is the study of lan­guage in general and of particular languages, their struc­ture, grammar and history.

1.3.4. Animate vs inanimate

The fourth nounal opposition distinguishes between living beings — people and animals, on the one hand, and things, on the other, and thus is relevant within the classes of proper, common, concrete countables.

1.3.5. Human (person) vs non-human (non-person)

This pair is the result of the division of animate nouns into those which are intended to name human beings or people and those that represent names of animals at large.


The opposition of human (person) and non-human (non-person) nouns is related to the further lexical divi­sion of human (person) nouns into those denoting male persons and those which name female persons. Both op­positions together constitute the lexical category of Gender which is realized by means of the three categorial forms: the neuter (i.e. non-human or non-person) gender, the masculine (i.e. masculine person) gender, the feminine (i.e. feminine person) gender.

Each opposition has its strong and weak members. The strong member of the first opposition is the class of human nouns with its semantic mark «person»: son, daughter, man, woman, bride, bridegroom, lord, lady, master, mistress, doctor, teacher, pupil, etc. The weak member is the class of non-human nouns which includes both animate nouns, i.e. collective nouns, names of animals and inanimate nouns, i.e. names of things, facts, abstract notions: crowd, government, organization, bear, wolf, hen, cock, cow, bull, book, love, fear, reading, and so on.

The strong member of the second opposition is traditionally considered to be the feminine gender while its weak member is the masculine gender. This may be accounted for by the fact that in English there exist a few pairs of person nouns like actor — actress, author — authoress, host — hostess, master — mistress, mayor — mayoress, peer — peeress, steward — stewardess, waiter — waitress in which the gender opposition is indicated grammatically: the feminine counterpart is marked by the suffix -ess, thus being its strong member. This type of

gender which is assigned to nouns as a constant may be called intrinsic. It may also be applied to such pairs as man — woman, lady — lord, bride — bridegroom, girl — boy, mother — father, brother — sister, son — daughter

and so on.

Yet on the whole, the category of Gender is semantic or lexical and expressed by the obligatory correlation of nouns with the personal pronouns of the third person: she — the feminine gender, he — the masculine gender, it — the neuter gender. Using another terminology this type of gender may be called referential for human beings are normally referred to as she or he, while animals and things as it. The only exceptions are the person nouns child and baby which are sometimes referred to as it.

The referential gender is typical of a great number of English person nouns which may be applied to both male and female persons: friend, neighbour, stranger, cousin, parent, teacher, student, doctor, writer, servant, taxpayer, clerk, etc. So their gender is specified either contextually or by means of compounds such as boy-friend, girlfriend, lady friend, lady doctor, lady writer, man-servant, maid­servant, girl-student, woman-clerk.

Alongside of the gender distinctions described above there are some specific cases in English which need a par­ticular consideration. First, sometimes in spoken language or literature there may be observed a tendency to asso­ciate the names of animals with the feminine or masculine gender. Nouns denoting them are characterized by the intrinsic feminine or masculine gender. On the one hand, there are some pairs of nouns like cow — bull, dog — bitch, mare— stallion, hen — cock. On the other hand,

the gender may be defined either with the help of the grammatical suffix -ess or by means of compounds: lion — lioness, tiger — tigress, he-wolf, she-wolf, he-bear, she-bear, male-elephant, female-elephant, cock-sparrow, hen-sparrow, tom-cat, jenny-ass.

In fiction any animal may act as a person. In this respect smaller and weaker animals like hare, cat, parrot are normally associated with the feminine gender while bigger and stronger ones such as elephant, horse — with the masculine gender. Conversely, birds and sometimes insects irrespective their small size are usually viewed as male: canary, nightingale, swallow, fly.

Second, sometimes in spoken language and fiction inanimate things and abstract notions are personified, i.e. viewed as human beings, and thus nouns denoting them are referred to as either feminine or masculine. Thus, the names of vessels and vehicles or mechanisms are traditio­nally alluded to as belonging to the feminine gender: ship, boat, steamer, car, coach, carriage, engine, etc. For example: The Titanic is a British passenger ship, thought of as impossible to sink, which on her first trip in 1912 hit an iceberg and sank, causing over 1500 deaths.

Moon and earth are referred to as feminine, while sun as masculine: It is pleasant to watch the sun in his chariot of gold, and the moon in her chariot of pearl. (O. Wilde)

The names of countries are conventionally viewed as feminine. For example: France is famous for her grapes, she can also grow peaches, pears and plums.

When abstract notions are personified the masculine gender is often ascribed to nouns with the general idea of strength (anger, death, fear war, hail) whereas the femi-

nine gender is normally related to the nouns expressing the idea of gentleness, charm (peace, kindness, beauty, spring, autumn, dawn).

To conclude: gender in English is a specific lexical (though with some elements of grammatical expression) category of nouns which can be expressed either intrin­sically or referentially.

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