Continuing to Count the Uncountable

Part 2, ah, ah, ah...

Previously (on ER) we were counting molecules of water, grains of sand and stars in the galaxy. We counted the small, medium, and large. We counted Counts just as Counts count:

Then, to throw a spanner in the works, I stated that there were some simple things out there that cannot be counted: height, width, Oxygen, water, gratitude and nonsense to remind you of a few. These are all nouns:

A noun is a word that is used to refer to a person, place, thing, quality, or action.

However, I left you hanging with:

As for espionage? Yes, you guessed it: impossible to count…or is it?

Espionage is a thing, right? You may not have seen it, but you are aware of its existence. If it’s a thing (an action more like) then it is a noun:

Espionage. Noun.

1. the use of spies to get secret information - military, political, industrial - especially by governments

2. the act or practice of spying

If you check the small print of a dictionary definition for espionage you see that even though espionage is a noun (and we can count nouns) it is an uncountable noun. Not all nouns are equal - especially if we cannot count them. Ironically, we can count the number of uncountable nouns:

There were sixteen uncountable nouns in that last paragraph.

Age is an uncountable noun. When you use age as a noun within its meaning of the process of getting older, you cannot count it. People are not ageless though: we have a birthday each year to prove that. So, how do you know when you have an uncountable noun standing before you?

The simplest definition I found for an uncountable noun was:

An uncountable noun doesn’t have a plural form. (source: page 206)

Bah! What about sheep? I have one sheep and you have two sheep. No plural form there, I hear you bleat. I can count sheep. If I couldn’t, how would I get to sleep each night? Sheep are a countable noun. What about fish?

I did quite like this one though:

Anything that cannot be counted is an uncountable noun. (source)

But no so much this one:

Countable nouns can be used with articles such as ‘a’, ‘an’ and ‘the’. Uncountable nouns are always considered to be singular. They have no plural, even if they end in ‘-s‘. Since uncountable nouns have no plural, we can’t use ‘a’ and ‘an’ with them.

I need to clear my throat before laughing a little at that one. Can someone pass me a water, please? See what I did there? Water is an uncountable noun, yet I could put an indefinite article in front of it and it still makes sense.

Hats off to grammarly.com for their contribution to the confusion. It certainly comes closest to pleasing me:

Uncountable nouns are nouns that come in a state or quantity that is impossible to count; liquids are uncountable, as are things that act like liquids (sand, air). Abstract ideas like creativity or courage are also uncountable. Uncountable nouns are always considered to be singular, and can stand alone or be used with some, any, a little, and much. (source)

Luckily, I can count the number of definitions of uncountable nouns. Not as many as molecules of water in a grain of sand, but very close.

As English is my given tongue, I’m learning plenty of formal grammar that I never knew existed for my language. That’s not entirely accurate. I know grammar exists, I never received formal teaching of grammar save using punctuation, figures of speech, and that’s about it. I read more about grammar to pass my qualification in teaching English as a foreign language. I can count the rabbit holes I have been down as a result. Uncountable nouns are a new concept and the more I delve into them the more confused I become on how you can define them with simple rule which works for the learner of English as a foreign language. I don’t think you can, though you can get close.

I hear English mistakes. That sounds obvious, but I don’t hear the incorrect word, phrase, tense, etc. I hear a difference in an expected sentence rhythm, or a word’s pronunciation tone. Likewise, for the written word I see patterns. More about written words later, but for example:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. (source)

A large part of my career involved legal documentation. I therefore needed to teach myself to see individual letters and words rather than patterns and expectations. That certainly helped my job progression, as I was extremely accurate (and fast) for both preparation and reviewing. Though hard to read the foregoing, I read it only slightly slower than my usual reading speed.

Back to sounds. I don’t hear the complete word luggages I only hear the extra ‘s’ added to the end, that grates against my eardrums, and my brain immediately goes in to red alert as it has recognised a mistake. I have not lost what was being communicated, and that is key - especially for fluency.

What was said:

Can you put all your luggages over there, please?

What it should have been:

Can you put your three pieces of luggage over there, please?

Do you see how you count the uncountable? The uncountable noun needs to be proceeded (or followed) by a decorator word or phrase. Sixteen bags of flour. Two kilogrammes of rice. Eight jugs of beer. Uncountable objects are relatively easy to count: proceed them with ‘some’. Alternatively, identify what they come in, or how you measure them, and use that for your decorator.

Decorators are creative too. Imagine how the Sistine Chapel would have turned out if Michaelangelo was asked to just slap a bit of whitewash on the ceiling? She oozed confidence. He had courage in spades. A green sea of grass. A monument of luggage.

Whilst grammatically, luggages, is very much verboten, language is, much to the grammar police’s dislike, fluid. So what grates and upsets today becomes the accepted way of speaking tomorrow. Humans are lazy, and we strive to ensure that we keep that way. Language and its use is not sacred. I would (and do) struggle to understand English written just 150 years ago. It’s not enjoyable to read, I am lazy, I will read modern novels only. I am happy to (and will) teach you the current grammar police accepted norms. I prefer to teach communication as I am not marking you for an exam; I ensure the world understands you. In the scheme of things, saying luggage or luggages is not the worst mistake you could be making. I don’t even think of it as a mistake (even through all the grating). It loses nothing in using either, and life moves on without incident.

So with your own language you are very much at an advantage to not having to formally learn most of the grammar rules, as you know when something is grammatically wrong because you hear a tonal or rhythmic difference in a sentence structure. It also allows you to break the rules as and when necessary - especially when you feel lazy. That is the joy. Breaking language rules keeps language fresh, relevant and interesting. So when a student asks, how will I know if a noun is uncountable?

My lazy answer is: it’ll sound wrong. Six Oxygens sounds wrong (it even looks wrong). Thirteen espionages: out of tune. You can put your luggages in the accommodations provided: where is your rhythm?

My slightly less lazy answer is: if you can’t count it, or time prohibits you from counting it, it probably is an uncountable noun. There are always exceptions to rules (I can count stars, but counting them one per second is going to take me a very long time), but exceptions prove the rule. Start to create a list of uncountable nouns as you encounter them. The lazy will search on the internet for a pre-prepared list. Furthermore, I recommend that you pay close attention to listening to the rhythm and tone of language, yours or someone else’s, so that you are better attuned to hearing out-of-key pronunciations which may indicate a mistake.

I am enjoying this journey. I get to learn the bedrock of the language I was born in to. I realise how difficult my language can be and count my lucky stars I don’t have to learn English as a second language. Then I remember all the trouble I have learning Japanese and how my utterances in that language must grate the accommodating people of Japan. I’m here to help, support and encourage you towards fluency.

Luggage is singular: it’s not luggages, but 15 pieces of Louis Vuitton luggage.

Collateral is singular: it’s not collaterals, but £20,000 worth of collateral.

Accommodation is singular: it’s not accommodations, but sixteen flats of accommodation.

As much as my ears, eyes and brain trifecta hate it, language changes, which is for the good. It does and will continue to annoy me. That’s the price of entry for fluency above perfection. I can listen to both and fully understand intention. That is the aim of language: communication, not an exercise in perfection.

I can count fifteen spies, thirty-six moles, four honey traps and numerous dead letter boxes. I’m struggling to directly count decorated espionage. Perhaps spies ooze espionage. Perhaps spies engage in levels of espionage. What we are able to count is the damage that espionage causes (which is ironic as damage is an uncountable noun):

Through at least eight acts of espionage, the mole directly or indirectly killed twenty-five fellow spies. Honey traps being the preferred bait.

Decorating espionage with acts is appropriate. When you spy, you act. You assume a role and play out that role according to your handler’s script. What better actor to act out a spy for us than Sir Alec Guinness, playing the role of John le Carré’s George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Pay particular attention to his melodic pronunciation: