Updated Dec. 2,  2013


Non-Count Nouns


Many people make mistakes with non-count nouns (= uncountable nouns = mass nouns), (不可数名词).

There are actually two different types of nouns that some people incorrectly use in the plural form:

A) Non-Count Nouns and,

B) Countable Group Nouns


A) Non-Count Nouns

Basically, these nouns represent a type (or general classification) of thing, material, activity, language usage etc.

These nouns (usually) have no plural form. Here is a short list of some of the words that people most commonly incorrectly use in the plural form:

rubble, grass, glass, work, homework, housework, shift work, baggage, luggage, equipment, experience, furniture, machinery, help, advice, gossip, slang, information, knowledge, vocabulary, time, money, food ....

You cannot say, "advices" nor can you say, "an advice", "a furniture" or "an equipment" etc. because "a" and "an" mean "one", which is counting.

Some uncountable words are used in the plural form when they have different meaning to the usual meaning. For example, "works" means "pieces of literary, musical or other artistic creation". "Works" is also used as part of some compound words to mean, "a place", such as "a steelworks" ( a factory where steel is made) and "a waterworks" ( a place where water is pumped and supplied to a district). These (steelworks, waterworks etc.) always have an "s" after the word "work" but are treated as a singular place (as one place) so the word, "a" is used before them such as, "a steelworks". See a longer list of this group of words on this page:

Of course, "a pair of glasses" is something you wear on your face to help you see (pairs can be counted). In the old days, people just wore one of them, called "a looking glass". Today, "two glasses"  means, "two containers, made of glass, for drinking" but you could also call those two things, "a pair of glasses", just like saying, "a pair of knives". This is a rare example of two possible different meanings for the same expression.

But you cannot say, "There were many glasses on the road after the car accident." You have to say, "There were many pieces of glass on the road after the car accident." Many of the words in the box above can be preceded by, "piece of" or "pieces of" and all them can be preceded by, "some", "a lot of", "lots of" and, "plenty of".

Some other uncountable nouns are used in the plural when the meaning is, "specific types (or specific examples) of this noun". For example, the noun, "grass" is uncountable in the usual usage. So, if you want to say 很多草 in English, you say, "a lot of grass", "lots of grass", "plenty of grass" or, more formally, "much grass". We don't say, "many grasses". However, you can say something such as this, "This scientist has studied many different grasses (= many different varieties of grass)".

Another frequent example of this type of error is this: "I can't find a job because I haven't had any work experiences". This plural form is incorrect because the speaker does not mean, "specific examples of experience"; the speaker is just talking about "experience in general" or "experience in totality". That sentence should be, "I can't find a job because I haven't had any work experience." However, the following example is correct: "I went to Africa and had many interesting and exciting experiences. For example, once a lion came within ten metres of me when I was taking photographs in Kenya."


B) Countable Group Nouns

This group of nouns can be used in the plural form but many people incorrectly use the plural form when they really mean, "the members of this one group".

For example, the word, "family" is a group noun and it is correct to say, "Many families live in this town." The mistake that people make is to say things such as, "My families all know how to play a musical instrument" when they should say, "The members of my family all know how to play a musical instrument" or, "All my family know how to play a musical instrument". In other words, don't use the plural form of the group name when you really mean the members of this one group.

Here is a short list of some countable group nouns that are incorrectly used in this way:

 staff, audience, family, group, population, government, class, team

To complicate matters, when using these words, British English usually uses plural verbs while American English usually uses singular verbs. That is, British English usually uses, "are" when American English uses, "is". Both are correct since there are two varieties of "Standard English" but in the IELTS test British English is a little "more correct"!

Some examples of correct usage:

"The class is having an exam at the moment." (U.S.) or, "The class are having an exam at the moment." (Br.)  (Where "class" = a group of students.)

"The government is considering this new law." (U.S.) or, "The government are considering this new law." (Br.)

"The group meets every Friday night" (U.S.) or, "The group meet every Friday night". (Br.)

"The audience is enjoying this concert." (U.S.) or, "The audience are enjoying this concert." (Br.)

 "My family is/are happy." (U.S.) or, "My family are happy." (Br.)

"The staff are busy." (Both U.S. & Br.)

"The population is shrinking." (Both U.S. & Br.)

My suggestion is this If you are mainly thinking of the group as one unit then use a singular verb, but if you are mainly thinking of the members of the group then use a plural verb. In either case, don't add an "s" to the group noun.