Nouns are an integral part of any sentence and, to most tertiary students,
are seemingly easy to use and understand. However, the fact is that mistakes in
the use of nouns are still commonly found in students’ writing.
Here are two examples:
- Dr. Wong’s knowledge of English and Putonghua are very rich and extensive.
(Knowledge is the subject of the sentence, not English and
Putonghua. Knowledge is uncountable, so the verb should be is, not
are. This is because the main verb should agree with the subject noun,
not the immediately preceding nouns).
Many advices can be sought from the careers and counselling unit in the
(Advice is uncountable, so the sentence should start with Advice can
Nouns denoting concepts and opinions may not be ‘counted’ in English, unlike
in many other languages (including Chinese). The following material will help
you understand how nouns can be used correctly.
1. Countable nouns
Countable nouns are nouns that have both singular and plural forms. The
following nouns, which are often used in academic writing, are countable:
e.g. I have read two recent articles investigating the issue of social
security and its effects on government expenditure.
2. Uncountable nouns
Uncountable nouns have no plural form and therefore take a singular verb. The
following nouns are usually uncountable:
e.g. A great deal of research on the nature of AIDS has been
conducted and it is encouraging to know that we have made some good progress.
3. Special cases
The following nouns are conceived as plural rather than singular and so have
only the plural form:
e.g. The police are looking for larger premises to
build the new headquarters.
Note: The word 'means' looks like a plural. This may be misleading, because 'means' is used both as a singular and a
e.g. "Language is more than a means of communication."
(a means = one means = singular)
e.g. "There are at least four means of transport suitable for you".
The word means is also found in the common phrase a means to an end,
which means a special method you use to achieve your goal. For example,
'Some people claim that torturing terrorist prisoners for information is an
acceptable means to an end, if the end is saving lives.'
When you use a collective noun such as government
and data you can choose either a singular verb or a plural verb depending
on whether you want to emphasise the noun as a single unit or as a number of
individuals or items.
- The government has received a great deal of criticism regarding its
handling of the student rally.
- The government are prepared to invest more on promoting tourism as
a way to revive the economy.
- Data for the research has been gathered from a questionnaire survey
and personal interviews.
- Data from our study provide a firm basis to evaluate the
effectiveness of the current policy.
These are some of the most common collective nouns:
public committee media
staff team audience group
You should also be aware that some nouns can be both countable and
uncountable, depending on the intended meaning. If you want to refer to the
thing in general, it is uncountable; if you want to refer to a particular
instance of it, it becomes countable.
- The newly employed marketing manager has much experience in
both the public and private sectors.
- I had an unpleasant experience last term when I worked with
two irresponsible classmates on a group project.
Other words in this category include:
conflict service discussion
language business agreement
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