AMITIAE - Monday 3 April 2016

Cassandra: Grammar Decisions - Countable, Uncountable Nouns and the Use of Articles

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers


I teach English communication skills to Thai students and in the writing segments, I sometimes despair of the output. There are several reasons (among them translation), but one small point of grammar often proves a sticking point: the use of countable and uncountable nouns.

For a native speaker, the difference is dealt with almost instantly, along with the use of the correct article (a/an, the, or nothing). To non-native speakers, however, the process of making such decisions is either labored or ignored.

I do not enjoy teaching grammar, but this point sometimes has me drawing a diagram on the white board and in recent weeks, I used this several times with undergraduate and graduate students. Over the weekend, I finally put this into a form that could be transmitted. Initially I used Apple's Keynote to draw the diagram, but ended up with a PNG image that I posted on Facebook with some explanation.

This has proved quite useful to several of my students (and others), so it might be better if this were more widely circulated. I am also able to place the diagram in the center of the text, which Facebook would not allow. Enjoy, and share. . . .

A problem exists that is simple for native speakers, but not so easy for others: the question of the countable noun and the use of articles. Book is countable; rice is uncountable. I have drawn a rough diagram to help writers make the same decisions as I do (albeit in 3 nanoseconds) regarding countable or uncountable nouns and articles.


  1. Is it a noun?
  2. Is it countable or uncountable?
  3. If countable, is it singular or plural?
  4. If singular, is it specific or non-specific (any book [non], the blue book there [specific]?
  5. If non-specific use A or An.
  6. If specific, use The.
  7. If plural is it specific or non-specific?
  8. If specific, use The. [The students in my class are noisy]
  9. If non-specific, use nothing [Books are not cheap now]

An uncountable noun is always used in the singular (so the verb will match). Similar decisions will apply when analyzing the uncountable noun.

  1. Is it non-specific or specific?
  2. If non-specific, no article is used [nothing] (e.g., water is necessary for life);
  3. If specific, we use The (e.g., the rice on my plate is delicious)

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. He is now continuing that in the Bangkok Post supplement, Life.



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