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THE NOUN - Countable and uncountable nouns

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THE NOUN

Countable and uncountable nouns

In English, nouns can be divided into countable and uncountable nouns.

Most common nouns are countable: i.e. they have both singular and plural forms: ex. handhands.

Other common nouns are uncountable: they have a singular, but no plural: ex. bread - *breads.

1.      Examples of countable and uncountable nouns

1a. Countable nouns can be both singular and plural:

singular

plural

the baby

the babies

a rose

some roses

that cup

those cups

the bird

the birds

a key

some keys

that shout

those shouts

1b. Uncountable nouns have no plural: they refer to things you cannot count. Here are examples of concrete nouns (referring to the physical world) which are not countable.

Substances: bread - *breads; dust - *dusts; steel - *steels.

Liquids: blood - *bloods; milk - *milks; alcohol - *alcohols.

Gases: air - *airs; steam - *steams; oxygen - *oxygens.

Many abstract nouns are also uncountable.

peace - *peaces; evidence - *evidences; information - *informations; history - *histories; work (=job) - *works, advice – *advices; gratitude - *gratitudes

2.      What are uncountables?

Uncountables refer to masses which we cannot easily think of as consisting of separate items: i.e. liquids, powders. We can divide many of these masses into subgroups, which are also uncountable:

material: cotton, wool, silk, nylon

meat: beef, pork, lamb, chicken

ex.: Are these socks made of wool or of cotton?

            I prefer lamb to chicken.

Types of uncountables

To remember easily, think of substances, liquids, gases, and abstract ideas as uncountable. In the lists of words in a – e, those uncountable nouns which have subgroups of uncountable nouns are marked in bold italic type.

a.       Substances:

wood, plastic, leather, cement, chalk, plaster, paint, sand, coal, rock, paper

material: cloth, cotton, silk, wool, nylon

metal: iron, gold, silver, brass, lead

food: flour, rice, bread, wheat, rye, sugar, salt, pepper, meat, fish, fruit, butter, cheese, jam

fur, skin, hair, ice, snow, rain, soil, grass, land, ground

b.      Liquids:

water, milk, coffee, tea, oil, petrol <G.B.>, gasoline <U.S.>, juice, alcohol

c.       Gases:

air, smoke, steam, oxygen, hydrogen

d.      Others (You might expect some of these to be plural, but they are not!):

furniture, luggage, baggage, money, pay, noise, traffic, music, accomodation

e.       Abstract ideas:

information, knowledge, advice, education, fiction, (outer) space, time, power, experience, history

NOTE: News looks like a plural noun, but in fact it is singular uncountable.

Ex.: There’s not much news on the radio today.

Note also that work, homework and housework are uncountable.

3.      How countables and uncountables behave

3a. Countable nouns

(i)                 can follow a, an or one

(ii)               can follow many, few, these, those

(iii)             can follow a number such as two, three, four, …

countable

uncountable

(i) Do you have a pleasant job?

(But not: … *a pleasant work)

(ii) Those meals you cooked were delicious

(But not: *Those foods…)

(iii) I bought two loaves (of bread)

(But not: … *two breads)

3b. Uncountable nouns

(i)                           can have no article and can follow some in the singular. They take only a singular verb.

(ii)                         can follow much or little

(iii)                       can easily follow expressions like most of the, all of the, all the , half the (in the singular)

uncountable

countable

(i) It’s made of wood.

(But not: *made of tree)

(ii) There’s too much traffic.

(But not: *too much vehicle)

(iii) I sold all the furniture.

(But not: *all the table)

Some and all the are occasionally followed by a singular countable noun. But this is exceptional.

Ex.: That was some party! (= ‘a very special party’)

            I’ve eaten all the loaf. (=’the whole loaf’)

Many nouns have both countable and uncountable uses. Some common examples:

countable

uncountable

A dozen (=12) eggs, please.

There’s some egg on your chin.

I’ve told him so many times.

We’ve wasted so much time.

The crowd threw rocks at us.

a tunnel through hard rock.

a strong wind; light winds

There’s a lot of wind about.

She gave a talk on sailing.

That’s foolish talk.

the bright lights of the city

Light travels very fast.

Some more examples: a glass – (some) glass; a cake – (some) cake; two papers – (some) paper.

For many nouns, the countable use is for separate items or things, but the uncountable use is for (an amount of) the material or substance. For example: two onions – (some) onion; a (whole) cheese – (some) cheese; a chicken – (some) chicken.

A countable noun can also describe ‘a kind or type of X’, where X is the uncountable noun.

Ex.: Gold and silver are valuable metals. (‘kinds of metal’)

This store sells health foods and baby food(s).

Oak is a hard wood.

We sometimes change an uncountable noun into a countable noun. For instance, nouns for liquids as tea and coffee are usually uncountable, but we can use them as countable nouns meaning (a) ‘a glass or cup of X’, or (b) ‘a type of X’.

Ex.: A tea and two coffees, please.

This is an excellent mineral water from Belgium.

NOTE: The meaning of a noun does not always help us to decide whether it is uncountable. For example, traffic, furniture, baggage (G.B. luggage), money, news refer to a group of separate things. But English treats them as uncountable; we could say that English ‘sees’ these as a mass.


The plural

The nouns which have a plural form are called countable nouns. Most nouns are countable.

The regular plural form of a noun adds –s (or –es) to the singular.

Ex.: week – weeks; cup – cups; plan – plans; law – laws; uncle – uncles; toy – toys

Most nouns add –s, but if the noun already ends in –s or –z, -x, -ch, -sh, it adds –es.

Ex.: bus – buses; buzz – buzzes; box – boxes; peach – peaches; bush – bushes

The formation of the plural can be describes as follows:

regular spelling

singular

plural

-s after most nouns:

 

cat

     tub

cats

     tubs

-es after nouns ending in –o:

                                         -s

                                         -x

                                         -ch

                                         -sh

potato

class

box

watch

    bush

potatoes

classes

boxes

watches

    bushes

consonant + -y becomes –ies:

country

countries

Note that vowel + -y adds –s: -ay:

                                                -ey:

                                                -oy:

                                                -uy:

day

key

boy

    guy

days

keys

boys

     guys

proper nouns ending in –y add –s in the plural:

Fry

Kennedy

Frys

Kennedys

irregular spelling

singular

plural

Some endings in –f/-fe take –ves:

wife

wives

Internal vowel change:

man

men

Nouns with plurals in –en:

ox

oxen

No change:

sheep

sheep

Foreign plurals:

analysis

analyses

1.      Collective noun + singular or plural verb

1a. Collective nouns which have plural forms

Some collective nouns such as audience, class, club, committee, company, congregation, council, crew, crowd, family, gang, government, group, jury, mob, staff, team and union can be used with singular or plural verbs. They are singular and can combine with the relative pronouns which/that and be replaced by it when we think of them in an impersonal fashion, i.e. as a whole group:

The present government, which hasn’t been in power long, is trying to control inflation. It isn’t having much success.

They are plural and can combine with who and be replaced by they or them when we think of them in a more personal way, i.e. as the individuals that make up the group:

The government, who are looking for a quick victory, are calling for a general election soon. They expect to be re-elected. A lot of people are giving them their support.

These collective nouns can also have regular plural forms:

Governments in all countries are trying to control inflation.

1b. Collective nouns which do not have plural forms

The following collective nouns have no regular plural but can be followed by a singular or plural verb: the aristocracy, the gentry, the proletariat, the majority, the minority, the public, the youth of today:

Give the public what it wants/they want.

Offspring has no plural form but can be followed by a singular verb to refer to one or a plural verb to refer to more than one:

Her offspring is like her in every respect. (one child)

Her offspring are like her in every respect. (more than one child)

The youth of today (=all young people) should not be confused with a/the youth (=a/the young man), which has a regular plural youths:

The youth of today is/are better off than we used to be.

The witness said he saw a youth/five youths outside the shop.

Youth (=a time of life) is used with singular verbs:

Youth is the time for action; age is the time for repose.

2.      Collective noun + plural verb

The following collective nouns must be followed by a plural verb; they do not have plural forms: cattle, the clergy, the military, people, the police, swine, vermin:

Some people are never satisfied.

The police/the military have surrounded the building.

People should not be confused with a/the people, meaning “nation” or “tribe”, which is countable:

The British are a sea-faring people.

The English-speaking peoples share a common language.

3.      Nouns with a plural form + singular verb

The following nouns, though plural in form, are always followed by a verb in the singular:

-          the noun news, as in: The news on TV is always depressing.

-          games, such as billiards, bowls, darts, dominoes: Billiards is becoming more and more popular.

-          names of cities such as Athens, Brussels, Naples: Athens has grown rapidly in the past decade.

4.      Nouns with a plural form + singular or plural verb

The following nouns ending in –ics take a singular verb: athletics, gymnastics, linguistics, mathematics and physics:

Mathematics is a compulsory subject in school.

However, some words ending in –ics, such as acoustics, economics, ethics, phonetics and statistics take a singular or plural verb. When the reference is to an academic subject (e.g. acoustics = the scientific study of sound) then the verb must be singular:

Acoustics is a branch of physics.

When the reference is specific, (e.g. acoustics = sound quality) then the verb must be plural:

The acoustics in the Festival Hall are extremely good.

Plural-form nouns describing illnesses have a singular verb:

German measles is a dangerous disease for pregnant women.

However, a plural verb is sometimes possible:

Mumps are (or is) fairly rare in adults.

Some plural-form nouns can be regarded as a single unit (+verb in the singular) or collective (+verb in the plural). Examples are: barracks, bellows, crossroads, gallows, gasworks, headquarters, kennels, series, species and works (=factory).

-single unit: This species of rose is very rare.

-more than one: There are thousands of species of butterflies.

The word means (=a way to an end) is followed by a singular or plural verb, depending on the word used before it:

All means have been used to get him to change his mind.

One means is still to be tried.

5.      Nouns with a plural form + plural verb

Nouns with a plural form only (+plural verb) are:

-nouns which can combine with a pair of:

My trousers are torn.

Used with a pair of, these words must have a singular verb:

A pair of glasses costs quite a lot these days.

We cannot normally use numbers in front of these words, but we can say two, etc. pairs of:

Two pairs of your trousers are still at the cleaner’s.

Some of these nouns can have a singular form when used in compounds: e.g. pyjama top, trouser leg:

Where did I put my pyjama top?

-a few words which occur only in the plural and are followed by a plural verb. Some of these are: antipodes, belongings, brains (=intellect), clothes, congratulations, earnings, goods, greens (=green vegetables), lodgings, looks (=good looks), means (=money or material possessions), oats, odds (in betting), outskirts, particulars, quarters (=accommodation), remains, riches, stairs.

All my belongings are in this bag.

6.      Nouns with different singular and plural meanings

Some nouns have different meanings in the singular and plural. Typical examples: air/airs, ash/ashes, content/contents, custom/customs, damage/damages, drawer/drawers, fund/funds, glass/glasses, look/looks, manner/manners, minute/minutes, pain/pains, scale/scales, saving/savings, spectacle/spectacles, step/steps, work/works. Sometimes the meanings are far apart (air/airs), sometimes they are quite close (fund/funds).

One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.

You can only reach that cupboard with a pair of steps.

Of course, the countable nouns in the above list have their own plurals: dirty looks, five minutes, sharp pains, two steps, etc.


QUANTITY

General introduction to quantity

1.      Quantifiers: what they are and what they do

Quantifiers are words and phrases like few, little, plenty (of), which often modify nouns and show how many things or how much of something we are talking about. Some quantifiers combine with countable nouns, some with uncountable and some with both kinds.

1.1  Quantifiers combining with countable nouns answer How many?:

How many eggs are there in the fridge? – There are a few.

1.2  Quantifiers combining with uncountable nouns answer How much?:

How much milk is there in the fridge? – There is a little.

1.3  Quantifiers combining with uncountable or with countable nouns answer How many? or How much?:

How many eggs are there in the fridge? – There are plenty.

How much milk is there in the fridge? – There is plenty.

2.      Quantifier + noun combinations

Quantifiers combine with different types of nouns:

2.1  Quantifier + plural countable noun: not many books; any number more than one (2, 3 etc.), both, a couple of, dozens/hundreds of, (a) few, fewer, the fewest, a/the majority of, (not) many, a minority of, a number of, several:

We have fewer students specializing in maths than in English.

2.2  Quantifier + uncountable noun: not much sugar; a (small) amount of, a bit of, a  drop of (liquid), a great/good deal of, (a) little, less, the least, (not) much:

I’d like a bit of bread with this cheese.

2.3  Quantifier + plural countable noun (a lot of books) or + (singular) uncountable noun (a lot of sugar): some (of the), any (of the), all (the), hardly any, enough, half of the/half the, a lot of, lots of, more, most, most of the, no, none of the, the other, part of the, plenty of, the rest of the:

There aren’t any cars on the road at the moment.

There isn’t any traffic on the road at the moment.

2.4  Quantifier + singular countable noun: each book; all (of) the, another, any (of the), each, either, every, half (of) the, most of the, neither, no, none of the, one, the only, the other, some (of the), the whole (of the):

It’s each/every man for himself in this business.

3.      Degrees of indefinite quantity

References to quantity can be definite: that is, we can say exactly how many or how much:

We need six eggs and half a kilo of butter.

However, most quantifiers are indefinite, that is, they do not tell us exactly how many or how much.

Some, any and zero refer to an indefinite number or amount:

Are there (any) apples in the bag?

There are (some) apples in the bag. (We are not told how many.)

Is there (any) milk in the fridge?

There is (some) milk in the fridge. (We are not told how much.)

No + noun indicates a complete absence of the thing mentioned:

There are no apples. There is no milk.

Most quantity words give us more information than some and any, telling us the comparative degree of the number or amount:

plural countable nouns

uncountable nouns

Approximately how many

Approximately how much

There are too many eggs.

There is too much milk.

                plenty of eggs.

              plenty of milk.

                a lot of/lots of eggs.

              a lot of/lots of milk.

                (not) enough eggs.

              (not) enough milk.

                a few eggs.

              a little milk.

                very few eggs.

              very little milk.

                not many eggs.

              not much milk.

                hardly any eggs.

              hardly any milk.

                no eggs.

              no milk.


4.      The use of ‘of’ after quantifiers

Some quantity phrases used as determiners always take of:

We’ve had a lot of answers. (a lot of answers=determiner + noun)

But when they are used as pronouns, of is dropped:

We’ve had a lot. (a lot as a pronoun)

4.1 General references with quantifiers

Quantifiers which always take of before nouns/pronouns include:

a couple of

dozens of/hundreds of

the majority/a minority of

a number of

people/books

(plural countable)

a large/small amount of

a bit of

cheese

(uncountable)

a lot of

lots of

plenty of

books/cheese

(plural countable

or uncountable)

These references are general, i.e. we are not saying which particular people, etc.

Other quantifiers (any, (a) few, more, most, some, etc.) go directly before the noun (no of) in general references:

There are hardly any eggs/a few eggs in the fridge.

There is some butter/no butter in the dish.

4.2 Specific references with quantifiers

If we need to be specific (i.e. point to particular items) we can follow a quantifier with of + a determiner (the, this, my).

Have some of this/a little of my wine. (e.g. the wine in this bottle)

I’ll lend you some of these/a few of my books. (specified books)

In the same way we can make specific references with quantifiers which are always followed by of by using determiners after them. Compare:

A lot of students missed  my lecture yesterday. (general reference)

A lot of the students who missed my lecture yesterday want to borrow my notes. (specific reference)

Note the following quantifiers which are always specific and which must therefore be followed by of + determiner:

None of the/this milk can be used.

Part of /The rest of this food will be for supper.

Put the rest of these biscuits in the tin.

Note the omission and use of of in:

How much is left? – None (of it). Part of it. The rest of it.

How many are left? – None (of them). Part of/The rest of them.

Particular quantifiers and their uses

1.      Numbers

Exact indications of quantity can be conveyed by means of numbers.

1.1  Cardinal numbers

Cardinal numbers can be used as quantifiers (two apples) or pronouns (I bought two). The number one will combine with any noun used as a singular countable noun:

We’ve got one micro and two electric typewriters in our office.

All other numbers combine with plural countable nouns:

Two cabbages, three kilos of tomatoes and twelve oranges.

Note also ordinals followed by cardinals (the first three, the second two, etc.) and: the next/last two, etc.:

The first three runners won medals.

1.2  Counting

A number of adverbial expressions can be used to describe quantities and groups: one at a time; one by one; two by two; by the dozen; by the hundred; in tens; in five hundreds:

How would you like your money? – In fives please.

1.3  Fractions

We can say: ½ (a/one half), ¼ (a/one quarter, or one fourth, AmE) and 1/3 (a/one third). Otherwise, we make use of cardinal and ordinal numbers when referring to a fraction on its own: 9/16 (nine sixteenths) or to a whole number + fraction: 2 2/3 (two and two thirds):

2 ¼ (Two and a quarter) plus 3 ½ (three and a half) equals 5 ¾ (five and three quarters).

We use a (Not one) with fractions for weights and measures:

I bought half a pound of tea and a quarter of a pound of coffee.

This could also be expressed as: a half pound of tea, a quarter pound of coffee.

1.4  Decimals

Fractions expressed as decimals are referred to as follows: 0.5 (nought point five or point five); 2.05 (two point nought five or two point oh five); 2.5 (two point five):

The front tyre pressure should be 1.8 (one point eight) and the rear pressure 1.9 (one point nine).

1.5  Multiplying and dividing quantity

The following can be used to refer to quantity: double (the quantity or amount); twice as much (or twice the quantity or amount); half as much (or half the quantity or amount), etc.:

We need double/twice/three times the quantity/amount.

1.6  Approximate number and quantity

Numbers can be modified by: e.g. about, almost, exactly, fewer than, at least, less than, more than, nearly, over, under:

There were over seventy people at the party. (= more than)

You can’t vote if you are under eighteen. (= less than)

2.      The use of ‘some’ and ‘any’

Some and any are the most frequently used quantity words in the language. They never answer How many? and How much?:

How much do you want? Just  a little. (Not *some)

How many do you want? – Just a few. (Not *some)

We generally use some and any when it is not important to state exactly how great or how small the quantity is. They often function as if they were the plural of a/an:

There are some letters for you. (unspecified number)

How many (letters are there)?Seven. (number specified)

There’s some bread in the bread-bin. (unspecified amount)

How much (bread is there)?Half a loaf. (amount specified)

It is sometimes possible to omit some or any:

My wife bought me medicine and pastilles for my cough.

SOME (= indefinite quantity or amount) is normally used

-          in the affirmative:

There are some eggs in the fridge. (i.e. an unstated number)

There is some milk in the fridge. (i.e. an unstated quantity)

-          in questions when we expect (or hope to get) the answer ‘Yes’:

Have you got some paper-clips in that box? (i.e.: I know or I think you’ve got some and expect you to say ‘Yes’.)

-          in offers, requests, invitations and suggestions when we expect the answer ‘Yes’ or expect implied agreement. The following are in the form of questions, though we are not seeking information:

Would you like some (more) coffee? (expecting ‘Yes’)

May I have some (more) coffee? (expecting ‘Yes’)

-          to mean ‘certain, but not all’:

Some people believe anything they read in the papers.

Not…some can be used in certain contexts to mean ‘not all’:

I didn’t understand some of the lectures/some of the information.

Some + countable or uncountable noun is normally unstressed:

There are some letters for you.

Some, meaning ‘certain but not all’ is usually stressed. It can be stressed at the beginning of a statement to emphasize a contrast:

Some people have no manners.

It can be stressed  to refer to an unspecified person/thing:

Some boy left his shirt in the cloakroom.

ANY (= indefinite quantity or amount) is normally used

-          in negative statements containing not or n’t:

We haven’t got any shirts in your size.

There isn’t any milk in the fridge.

-          in questions when we are not sure about the answer or expect ‘No’:

Have you got any paper-clips in the box? (i.e. I don’t know if you’ve got any and wouldn’t be surprised if you said ‘No’)

-          in sentences containing a negative word other than ‘not’, such as hardly, never, seldom or without, or when there is any suggestion of doubt, e.g. with if or whether (implied negatives):

There’s hardly any petrol in the tank.

We got to Paris without any problems.

I don’t know if/whether there’s any news from Harry.

-          with at all and (more formally) whatever for special emphasis:

I haven’t got any idea at all/whatever about what happened.

3.      The use of ‘not…any’, ‘no’ and ‘none’

3.1  ‘Not…any’ and ‘no’

An alternative way of forming a negative is with no:

not…any: There aren’t any buses after midnight.

no: There are no buses after midnight.

A clause can contain ONLY ONE NEGATIVE WORD, so that not and e.g. no or never cannot be used together:

I could get no information. (Not *I couldn’t)

When used in preference to not…any, no is slightly more formal and makes a negative idea more emphatic. Negatives with not…any are used in normal conversation, but we must always use no (Never *not any) if we wish to begin a sentence with a negative:

No department stores open on Sundays.

No can combine with a singular noun:

There’s no letter for you. (= There isn’t a letter for you.)

I’m no expert, but I think this paper is a fake.

No at the beginning of a statement strongly emphasizes a negative idea.

3.2  ‘No’ and ‘none’

No meaning not…any is a determiner and can only be used before a noun; none stands on its own as a pronoun:

There isn’t any bread.             There’s no bread.        There’s none.

There aren’t any sweets.         There are no sweets.   There are none.

Like no, none is more emphatic that not…any. When no or none are used, not cannot be used as well:

I couldn’t get any information about flights to the USA.

I could get no information about flights to the USA.

Do you have any new diaries? – We’ve got none at the moment.


4.      Special uses of ‘some’, ‘any’ and ‘no’

4.1  ‘Some’

Apart from its common use as a quantifier, some can be used to refer to an unspecified person or thing etc. When used in this way it can mean:

- ‘several’:                   I haven’t seen Tom for some years.

- ‘approximately’:        There were some 400 demonstrators.

- ‘extraordinary’:         That’s some radio you’ve bought! (informal)

- ‘an unknown’:           There must be some book which could help.

- ‘no kind of’:              That’s some consolation, I must say! (ironic)

With abstract nouns some can be used to mean ‘an amount of’:

We’ve given some thought to your idea and find it interesting.

4.2  ‘Any’

Apart from its common use as a quantifier, any can be used to refer to an unspecified person or thing and can occur in affirmative statements. When used in this way it can mean:

- ‘usual’:                                  This isn’t just any cake. (it’s special)

- ‘the minimum/maximum’:     He’ll need any help he can get.

- ‘I don’t care which’:              Give me a plate. Any plate/one will do.

4.3  ‘Any’ and ‘no’ + adjective or adverb

Any and no, used as adverbs to mean ‘at all’, will combine with adjectives and adverbs in the comparative:

Is he any better this morning? – No, he’s no better.

Any and no used as adverbs combine with a few positive adjectives, e.g. good (any good) and different (any different):

Is that book any good? – It’s no good at all.

5.      Common uses of ‘much’ and ‘many’

We normally use  much (+ uncountable) and many (+ plural countable):

-          in negative statements:

I haven’t much time. There aren’t many pandas in China.

-          in questions:

Is there much milk in that carton? Have you had many inquiries?

In everyday speech we usually avoid using much and many in affirmative statements. We use other quantifiers, especially a lot of. Much and many occur in formal affirmative statements:

Much has been done to improve conditions of work.

Many teachers dislike marking piles of exercise books.

Combinations like as much as and as many as are used in the affirmative or negative:

You can/can’t have as much as (as many as) you like.

When much and many are modified by much and far (much/far too much, much/far too many) they tend to be used in the affirmative:

Your son gets much/far too much pocket money.

There are far too many accidents at this junction.

Many in time expressions occurs in the affirmative or negative:

I have lived here/haven’t lived here (for) many years.

Not much and not many commonly occur in short answers:

Have you brought much luggage? – No, not much.

Have you written many letters? – No, not many.

Not much and not many can be subjects or part of the subject:

Not much is really known about dinosaurs.

Not many people know about Delia’s past.

Much occurs in a number of expressions (e.g. there’s not much point in…; it’s a bit much; he’s not much of a…):

There’s not much point in telling the same story again.

Not so much occurs in comparisons:

It’s not so much a bedroom, more a studio.

Dennis is not so much a nuisance as a menace.

It’s not so much that he dislikes his parents, as that/but that he wants to set up on his own.

Many (like few) can be modified by the, my, your, etc.:

One of the many people he knows can help him to get a job.

6.      ‘(A) few’ and ‘(a) little’

6.1  ‘Few’ and ‘a few’

Few and a few are used with plural countables.

Few is negative, suggesting ‘hardly any at all’, and is often used after very:

Mona has had very few opportunities to practise her English.

In everyday speech we prefer not…many or hardly any:

Mona hasn’t had many opportunities to practise her English.

Mona has had hardly any opportunities to practise her English.

Few can also convey the idea of ‘not as many as were expected’:

A lot of guests were expected, but few came.

A few is positive, suggesting ‘some, a (small) number’:

The police would like to ask him a few questions.

A few can mean ‘a very small number’, or even ‘quite a lot’. The size of the number depends on the speaker’s viewpoint:

I don’t know how much he’s got, but it must be a few million.

A few can be used to mean ‘more than none, more than expected’:

Have we run out of sardines? – No, there are a few tins left.

A few can also combine with other words:

just:                 How many do you want? Just a few please. (i.e. a limited number, not many)

only:                There are only a few seats left. (i.e. very few, hardly any)

quite:               How many do you want? Quite a few please. (i.e. quite a lot)

a good:                        We had a good few letters this morning. (i.e. quite a lot)

dozen, 100,      The film director employed a few hundred people as extras.

1000 :              (i.e. several hundred)

the, my, etc.:    The few people who saw the film enjoyed it.

                        Her few possessions were sold after her death. (i.e. the small number of)

6.2  ‘Little’ and ‘a little’

Little and a little are used with (singular) uncountables.

Little (like few) is negative, suggesting ‘hardly any at all’ and is often used after very:

He has very little hope of winning this race.

In everyday speech we prefer not…much or hardly any:

He hasn’t much hope of winning this race.

He has hardly any hope of winning this race.

Little can also convey the idea of ‘not as much as was expected’:

We climbed all day but made little progress.

Little occurs in idiomatic ‘negative’ phrases such as little point, little sense, little use, etc:

There’s little point in trying to mend it.

A little and, in very informal contexts, a bit (of) are positive, suggesting ‘some, a (small) quantity’:

I’d like a little (or a bit of) time to think about it please.

The size of the amount depends on the viewpoint of the speaker:

Mrs. Lacey left a little money in her will – about $1,000,000!

A little can also mean ‘more than none, more than expected’:

Have we got any flour? – Yes, there’s a little in the packet.

A little can combine with other words:

just:     How much do you want? – Just a little please. (i.e. a limited quantity, not much)

only:    There’s only a little soup left. (i.e. very little, hardly any)

Few and little can be modified by e.g. extremely, relatively:

There are relatively few jobs for astronauts.

A few and a little can modify other quantifiers, as in a few more, a little less etc.

6.3  ‘Fewer/the fewest’ and ‘less/the least’

These are the comparative and superlative forms of few and little. In theory, fewer/the fewest should be used only with plural countables (fewer/the fewest videos) and less/the least only with uncountables (less/the least oil):

Fewer videos were sold this year than last.

Less oil was produced this year than last.

In practice, however, the informal use by native speakers of less and the least with plural countables or collective words like people is commonly heard (less people, less newspapers) but is not generally approved:

Less and less people can afford to go abroad for their holidays.

Political programmes on TV attract the least viewers.

Less (not fewer) is used before than for prices and periods of time:

It costs less than $5. I’ll see you in less than three weeks.

6.4  The modification of ‘fewer’ and’less’

Fewer is modified by even, far, many, a good deal/many and a lot:

There are far fewer/a lot fewer accidents in modern factories.

Less is commonly modified by even, far, a good deal, a little, a lot, many (many less) and much:

I’ve got much/a lot/far less free time than I used to have.

Activities

1.      Give the abstract nouns of:

boy; partner; wise; humid; to discover; proud; to know; long; deep; patient; illiterate; brother.

2.      Give the plural number of the following nouns:

table; chair; window; flower; bush; glass; brush; horse; half; roof; knife; class; rose;  peach; bus; box; bridge; city; lady; key; fly; leaf; ray; bath; path; child; piano; pencil; goose; woman; man; tooth; cry; mouse; basis; formula; datum; analysis; phenomenon; hypothesis; crisis; sanatorium; schoolboy; cupboard; camera-man; highway; afternoon; footstep; passer-by; man-servant; sister-in-law; looker-on; race-horse; forget-me-not.

3.      Use the verbs in brackets in the singular or in the plural (present tense) as required by the subject:

1.      My family (be) at the seaside.

2.      Our basketball team (play) tonight.

3.      Mathematics (be) an exact science.

4.      People (like) travelling today.

5.      Our group (be) made up of fifteen students.

6.      The crowd (be) gathered in front of the stadium gates.

7.      The government (agree) to take the necessary steps to improve the living conditions.

8.      The staff (be) composed of almost twenty persons.

9.      The army (be) camped near the river.

4.      Choose the correct verb:

1.      The information (is, are) not correct.

2.      The furniture in this room (is, are) very old.

3.      People (is, are) interested in computers nowadays.

4.      Tom’s trousers (was, were) new.

5.      My scissors (is, are) in the drawer.

6.      The 9 o’clock news (was, were) good.

5.      Use the singular or plural, as required:

1.      The crowd (was, were) cheering the speaker.

2.      The whole gang (was, were) arrested.

3.      The pack of cards (was, were) lying all over the table.

4.      When the audience (has, have) settled (itself, themselves) in (its, their) chairs, the play will begin.

5.      A bunch of flowers (was, were) offered to her.

6.      The herd (was, were) in the field.

7.      The class (is, are) the best in the school.

8.      A lot of people (has, have) flu this autumn.

6.      Translate into Romanian:

a stack of wood; a herd of deer; a bunch of flowers; a swarm of flies; a flock of sheep; a crowd of people; a bundle of sticks; a series of events; a cluster of stars; a gang of thieves; a chain of mountains; a flight of steps; a chest of drawers; a bunch (cluster) of grapes; a fleet of ships; a pack of wolves; a flight of birds; a team of workers.

7.      Supply (the) little, a little, (the) few, a few in the following sentences:

1.      I’d like to make … remarks in connection with the topic under discussion.

2.      I know … of the men.

3.      I know … about the man. There’s nothing definite that I could say.

4.      Please, hurry, there is … time left. … spare time I have after work is always spent on shopping or doing a lot of housework. Now there is … time left, so we can go to the next bookshop to buy the latest books and magazines.

5.      She has a fairly good command of French and, besides, knows … German.

6.      weeks from now he’ll be miles and miles away.

7.      There are … books on civil law in our library. … books on civil law I have read are very difficult.

8.      It’s no use asking him about it. He has … experience in this matter.

9.      He had very … friends (hardly any friends).

10.  The chairman said … words (some words).

11.  There was very … water in the flowerpot.

12.  May I have … wine, please?

13.  She had … biscuits and … milk and felt much better.

14.  There is … soup left so I cannot give you a second helping.

8.      Insert much, many, very, such, such as, such a, as needed:

1.      Nick is the … image of his father.

2.      You have eaten too … cakes and drunk too … lemonade, no wonder you feel sick.

3.      ‘How … books do you want to borrow?’ – ‘As … as you can give me.’

4.      On … fine day it is a pity to stay indoors.

5.      So … people had come to the party that you could hardly find a chair to sit down.

6.      Cities … London and Glasgow are very crowded.

9.      Substitute (a) few, many, (a) little, much, a lot of in place of ‘a small quantity’, ‘a large number’, etc.

For example:

John drinks a large quantity of coffee. John drinks a lot of coffee.

Mary had a small number of good friends. Mary had a few good friends.

He doesn’t eat a large quantity of bread. He doesn’t eat much bread.

1.      The students don’t bring a large number of books to school.

2.      Children need a large quantity of milk.

3.      He doesn’t usually buy a large number of pens.

4.      Has John got a large number of shirts?

5.      Mary drinks a small quantity of coffee.

6.      We haven’t got a large number of classes today.

7.      They have a small quantity of money.

8.      He had a small number of toys.

10.  Choose the correct adjective:

1.      There is (little, few) water in this well.

2.      There are (much, many) mountains in Canada.

3.      We have received (much, many) valuable information.

4.      She made (little, few) mistakes in her last composition.

5.      How (much, many) pages have you translated?

6.      (much, many) cars passed over here.

7.      There is (little, few) ink in this inkpot.

11.  Supply some or any:

1.      Wasn’t there … telephone in the house?

2.      May I give you … more milk?

3.      ‘Give me … cold milk to drink’, said Mary.

4.      He may turn up … time.

5.      The driver can stop the engine at … moment he pleases.

6.      people are very interesting to talk to; others are boring.

7.      Is there … reason for his refusal?

You’ll have to do it … way.

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