Language Awareness Task 6 Kevin Stein Nouns What is generally meant by count and non-count nouns in English

? Comment on the difficulty in distinguishing between them, and identify any grammatical features associated with each type. Give plenty of examples to show how you would illustrate the grammatical features to a group of learners.

Countable and uncountable, sometimes also referred to as 'unit' and 'mass', are two broad categories of nouns. They are, as their name implies, nouns which can be counted and those which cannot. Regardless of the grammar text, whether it be Parrot (2000), Murphy (1994), or Swan (2005), the basic definition of countable and uncountable nouns is relatively similar. Aside from the whole issue of countability, countable nouns are also said to have a singular as well as a plural form, while uncountable nouns usually lack a plural form (Murphey, p. 136). And just in case one might get confused about why pasta cooked al dente, with its clearly separate strands, is considered uncountable, some grammars and English teachers have helped popularize the term 'mass nouns' to help us keep in mind that that pasta, rice and sand belong to a category of "materials, liquids, abstract qualities, collections and other things which we see as masses without clear boundaries, and not as separate objects." (Swan, 128) Now if we, as teachers, are asked to teach a unit on the difference between countable and uncountable nouns, a recipe can be a good first step (Larsen-Freeman, 1991). As a small homework assignment, ask the students to write up a list of the types and amounts of foods they happen to have in their refrigerator the day before their next English class. During the class, the teacher jots down the ingredients needed for a simple recipe on the board and sees if, pooling all of the foods from all of the students' food lists, it would be possible to prepare the dish. For example, if the recipe was for an Italian omelet, the teacher might point to one of the ingredients and say to the class, "I need three green peppers. Does anyone have green peppers," while underlining the plural 's' on peppers. Kevin Stein 1

The teacher might then say, "I need 50 milliliters of milk. Does anyone have some milk?" Countable nouns solicited from students' lists could be written up on the left side of the board, while mass nouns would be written up on the right side of the board. As a final step, the teacher could solicit rules around countable and mass nouns and supplement any important ideas that the students weren't able to generate inductively, such as the conversion of mass nouns into a countable form by the addition of phrases like, "a bottle of," "a piece of," or "a head of." Still, while I have used a number of course books with unit titles such as, "countable vs. uncountable," it has always seemed a decidedly strange basis for a communicative language lesson. As Parrot (2000, p. 10) writes, "although the distinction between countable and uncountable is based on the reality of what the nouns describe, the distinction is a grammatical one rather than a real one." A point which becomes all too clear when you start to think about some other foods which might be sitting in a kitchen, waiting to be eaten. Bread is a wonderful example. Bread is uncountable. And yet if you have two loaves of bread sitting on your kitchen table, they are quite clearly countable, at least it is pretty easy to point at each loaf of bread and number them off. I usually explain to learners that bread is typically cut from a loaf in order to be eaten, and that anything that needs to be cut, shaved, scooped or otherwise broken down into smaller units is most likely to be an uncountable noun. Which merely begs the question of why, in America at least, 3 pizzas steaming on the living room table would be countable, while those loaves of bread would not. Grammatical constructs used in a classroom, by necessity, are a simplification of language. But just because there are moments where a construct falls apart does not make it useless. If the rules confuse students or contradict actual language in use, then one would have to begin questioning the value of presenting the rule. But, as can be seen in the recipe exercise, countable/mass nouns can not only give learners a chance to practice using the inflectional plural affix-s, but help learners develop concept boundaries for how plurals are used in English in general, some of which might be quite different from the student's L1. In fact, the idea of countable and uncountable nouns can be used to introduce or review a surprisingly wide array of grammatical features for students at Kevin Stein 2

varying developmental levels. Adverbs of amount are a natural fit for lessons focusing on countable/uncountable nouns. Adverbs of amount can pose difficulties for learners when the adverb/noun word order in the L1 differs from that of English, or if the order changes depending on the sentence content. For example, in Japanese it would be natural to say, "3 Eggs," when discussing ingredients for a recipe, but when explaining the steps to preparing a dish, the sentence would be said, "Eggs, 3, crack and put in the bowl," as opposed to the English, "Crack 3 eggs in the bowl." So in the recipe lesson above, if the task was extended out so students had to teach each other the steps to cooking some of their favorite dishes, learners could not only work with plurals, but word order around adverbs of quantity and their relation to countable/mass nouns as well. At a higher level, adverbial quantifiers could be revisited by discussing issues faced by students in their city. Problems such as 'too much pollution," "not enough parking" or "too few bicycle lanes," and "only a little rainfall," could all help reinforce how countable and uncountable nouns sometimes require different adverbs as well as provide an opportunity to discuss more colloquial adverbs such as, "a lot of" which can be used with all nouns. If we judge a linguistic concept by how well it can be used to help students understand and integrate grammatical forms, then countable and uncountable can be seen as impressively useful for its ability to raise students' awareness around article use in English. Article acquisition is notoriously difficult for learners of English and even advance learners have a tendency to misuse indefinite articles with mass nouns and difficulty in differentiating between materials and objects which use the same word (Ogawa, 2008) (i.e. "There was some broken glass" and "He broke the glass you just bought"). But the fact that some nouns can be both countable or uncountable, while potentially leading to confusion for beginning learners, can also be a source of clarification around article use for more advanced learners. Scott Thornbury (2001, p. 103) has an exercise in which students are presented with a series of images in which nouns are used in both their countable and uncountable form and learners must use these images as clues to discover the name of the person in each picture. For example, in one image a woman is walking a chicken on a leash, while in another, a man is eating some Kevin Stein 3

chicken. By honing in and exploring one small facet of mass/countable nouns in depth such as material/object or specific meaning/general concept ("The time of my life"/"Time is fleeting"), students can begin to develop a better feeling for article use in general. At the most advanced levels, countable/mass nouns could be used to explore the role of elisions in language. The language a wine salesman would use when trying to sell a case of 1945 Château Mouton-Rothschild (imagine something along the lines of, "These 12 bottles of the finest wine are the very symbol of victory over adversity.") would differ substantially from what a teenager who stumbled upon a dusty box of wine while cleaning the basement might say to his friend on the phone ("I found some wine, dude!") which would be different again from a couple on a date ("How about some wine?") and different in kind from a rude customer giving his order ("2 house reds."). Discrepancies in social positions often impacts the number of function words used when conveying information, and the decision to convert or not convert mass nouns into countable units through the use of markers such as glass, bottle, or sip could help learners begin to explore issues of register. The countable/mass nouns construct could even be visited again within a teacher training environment, not to explore the categories themselves, but to use the concept of countable/mass to highlight the constant evolution of language. In general, foreign words in English have a singular form only, so while the little bite-sized pieces of magic known as sushi appear to be perhaps the most countable of food, we never say 'sushis' and must use the counter 'piece' in order to express quantity. But if the foreign word becomes familiarized within English to the point where it loses it's foreignness, then the counter can be dropped and we have, as mentioned above, three pizzas on the table and maybe even two nice futons in the bedroom. But to let in the light, we still open the shoji (ricepaper screens) as opposed to the 'shojis.' In the end, the idea of countable/uncountable nouns is perhaps nothing more than a convenient fiction. It is not a description of the world, but a partial description of the language we use to describe the world. It is not one hundred percent accurate, nor does it have to be. The concept of countable and mass nouns, for all its limitations, can still help Kevin Stein 4

students make sense of some of the truly uncountable possibilities that English has to offer. References: Larsen-Freeman, D. (1991). Teaching grammar. In M. Celce-Murcia (Ed.), Teaching English as a second or foreign language (pp. 279–295). Rowley, MA: Newbury House. Murphy, R. (1994). English grammar in use: a self-study reference and practice book for intermediate students, with answers, (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Ogawa, M. (2008) The Acquisition of English Articles by Advanced EFL Japanese Learners: Analysis Based on Noun Types. Journal of language and culture Language and information 3 (3), 133-151. Parrott, M. (2000). Grammar for English Language Teachers. Cambridge: CUP Swan, M. (2005). Practical English Usage, (3rd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (pg. 128-129) Thornbury, S. (2001). Uncovering Grammar. Oxford: Macmillan Heinemann. (p.102 ((107))

Kevin Stein


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