In English, some nouns can be countable or uncountable, but have different meanings:
- A coffee, please! (= 1 cup) / I don’t drink coffee. (= the drink, liquid)
- There are 10 chickens in the hen house. (= birds) / I love chicken. (= meat)
- I don’t eat meat. (= the flesh of an animal or bird) / We have tried a lot of exotic meats. (= types of meat)
Note that any noun meaning a drink can be used like coffee in sentence 1:
I’d love a lemonade! / Her mom makes great lemonade.
I always have a tea in the afternoon. / They say all Englishmen love tea.
I’ve got a juice for you. / Juice is good for you.
If you have doubts about what kind of noun you are dealing with, it’s always a good idea to consult a dictionary to know for sure. There are general rules about what nouns are countable and what nouns are uncountable (check out this post for the rules), but nouns that can be both countable and uncountable depending on the meaning are perhaps the most interesting and tricky. Our top 10 are below…
Iron (uncountable noun (UN)) is a hard, heavy metal that is a common element:
Iron is used for making steel. (BTW, “steel” can be countable or uncountable too: steel is a metal, and a steel is a bar used for making blades on knives or scissors sharp.)
Iron deficiency occurs when the body doesn’t have enough of the mineral iron.
An iron (countable noun (CN)) is an object with a flat metal base that is heated and used for making clothes smooth:
What should I look out for when buying an iron?
An iron is also a golf club with a metal end for hitting the ball:
How many irons are there in the golf bag?
A fish (CN) is a creature that lives in water and has a tail and fins. The form fish is usually used for the plural, but fishes can also be used. Fish (UN) is the flesh of a fish eaten as food:
Huge friendly Japanese fish/fishes swim in the aquarium.
As a child, I couldn’t eat fish.
For more fish-related vocabulary, check out “Fish Vocabulary: Idioms & More“.
Light (UN) is the brightness that lets you see things. A light (CN) is a device which produces light:
Cracks of light filtered through the shutters.
The janitor comes round to turn the lights out.
A light (singular noun) is also something used for lighting a cigarette:
Have you got a light, please?
Smoke (UN) is the grey or black gas that is produced when something burns. A smoke (CN) is a cigarette (informal English):
A column of smoke rose from the chimney.
You guys are always bumming my smokes. (To bum is to ask someone to give you something such as a cigarette, drink, or money without giving them anything in return (informal English).)
Fire (UN) is heat, light, and flames that are produced when something burns. A fire (CN) is an event when something burns in a way that causes damage and cannot be controlled:
The school was badly damaged by fire.
A fire broke out in the school.
A fire (CN) is also a pile of wood, coal, etc. that is burning to produce heat:
They put up the tents and lit a fire.
Fire (UN) is the shooting of guns and other weapons:
The soldiers opened fire.
Related: “Fire Idioms & Collocations”
A sport (CN) is a game or activity in which players or teams compete against each other. Sport (UN) is all types of physical activity that people do to keep healthy or for enjoyment. Sport = sports (American English):
I love winter sports like skiing, hockey and figure skating.
Sport is good for health. (British English) = Sports are good for health. (American English)
Food (UN) is something that people and animals eat, or plants absorb, to keep them alive. A food (CN) is a particular type of food:
We have run out of dog food.
People with this complaint can’t digest certain foods (for example, beans).
Fruit (UN) is food that tastes sweet and contains seeds. A fruit (plural: fruit/fruits) is a type of such food:
They say fruit in the diet may protect against the disease.
Tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable.
A fruit (CN) is also the part of a tree or plant that contains its seeds:
Mistletoe fruits/fruit are white.
Education (UN) is the process of teaching and learning in a school or college, or the knowledge that you get from this. An education (CN, usually singular) is someone’s experience of learning or being taught:
Education is a major concern for voters.
I just want to have/get an education.
Experience (UN) is knowledge that you get from doing a job, or from doing, seeing, or feeling something. An experience (CN) is something that happens to you that affects how you feel:
He knows from experience not to play with fire.
My trip to Australia was an experience I’ll never forget.
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