OK, it’s time for the next installment in my ongoing effort to force the English language down the throat of Italy like so many McDonald’s hamburgers. Today I’d like to clear up an area of particular confusion amongst Italian learners of English.
The topic that I want to address is the distinction between countable and uncountable nouns. Indeed, I feel somewhat indirectly responsible for this mess, being of Italian-American background. My ancestors were among many who insisted that their children speak English, while refusing to teach them proper Italian. The messy result led to poor grammar skills in subsequent generations. Let me use an example to explain…
Many Italians are confused when I tell them that the word “fish” is used both in the singular and the plural—one fish, two fish, a hundred fish. “But why then,” they ask, “does Luca Brasi sleep with the fishes?”
Well, as I’ve already alluded to, it’s because those early Italian immigrants received very poor language instruction, both at home and at school. They (logically) assumed that all plural words in English should end in an “s.” In Italian, you say one “pesce,” two “pesci.” Makes sense, right? But perhaps they just didn’t want to believe that such a “perfect” country could have such an imperfect language.
So then why does Fat Clemenza make the opposite mistake and say, “Leave the gun, take the cannolis?” In fact, he makes a much worse mistake by keeping the Italian word and Americanizing it by adding an “s.” (Yes, I watched the clip ten times on YouTube and he definitely adds an “s.”) Che vergogna! I think it’s fair to say that he wasn’t the most studious goombah at school. And judging by his considerable girth, he’s obviously eaten too many American-style cannoli. Doppia vergogna!
I’m getting off topic here, as is my tendency. Let’s focus on some actual rules for a moment instead of my inane anecdotes.
Countable and Uncountable Nouns
As the name would suggest, countable nouns are words/things which can be counted. They always have a singular form and a plural form. Most countable nouns are made plural by adding an “s” or “es” to the end of the word. One meatball, many meatballs; one dish, many dishes. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, as our friend Luca Brasi (riposa in pace) can attest to.
Conversely, uncountable nouns are words/things which cannot be counted and so they only have a singular form. These words are treated as “wholes” rather than as individual parts. They often refer to concepts like intelligence or energy; or collective groupings like traffic or clothing.
A good illustration here is the word “information.” In Italian, they can make this word plural by changing the final vowel (informazione —> informazioni). This would sound very awkward in English. Take this typical conversation for example:
“Madonna, I’m not digesting my lunch very well, the mozzarella is making me gassy. And now I need to use the bidet.”
“Thanks for sharing, Giorgio, but that’s way too much information for me.” Notice I didn’t say “informations,” because this word is always uncountable, and therefore singular, in English.
Speaking of eating, certain types of foods and drinks (and most liquids in general) are considered uncountable in English, for example: meat, cheese, soup, oil. But you have to be careful with this one, because it can change according to context.
You could ask, “Can I have some more wine?” but you wouldn’t say, “Can I have some more ‘wines’?” However, wine becomes countable when put into a container. “Waiter, can I have two more glasses of wine?” So now “glasses of wine” become countable—that is, until after the fourth or fifth glass when counting becomes superfluous…or even cognitively impossible.
Don’t get me started on politics again
To blur the topic further, there are some words that look like the plural of a countable noun, but are actually uncountable, and therefore always singular. For example, the word “politics.” We say that we discuss “politics,” not “a politic,” right? But as in our example with wine, politics can be made countable by placing it in a different context. So while “politics” is uncountable, “political parties” are countable. Except in Italy, of course, where even the latest computer algorithms have failed to quantify all the various alliances and sub-factions. So maybe that’s a bad example. Anyway, moving on…
More confusing still are the words which can be either countable or uncountable depending on their usage. For these, relevant examples are always enlightening (and not just for their grammatical significance).
Countable: “How many rooms do you have in your apartment?”
Uncountable: “Even when the metro is so full that the doors aren’t able to close, many Romans still believe that there’s room for one more person.”
Countable: “Some of Caravaggio’s greatest works are in Rome.”
Uncountable: “Aho’! Why should I find work? My mother cooks my meals, irons my shirts, and gives me money for cigarettes.”
Countable: “Waiter, there are two hairs in my pasta e fasul!”
Uncountable: “Wow, Vito sure has a lot of hair on his back!”
Countable: “If you close your eyes and listen, there are many interesting noises in Rome.”
Uncountable: “I can’t hear myself think! Why do Romans have to make so much noise all the time?”
Once again, I hope that I’ve shed some light on a somewhat confusing grammar point. But as always, it’s important to practice these rules and try them out for yourself in conversation. Knowing the difference between countable and uncountable nouns can be the difference between speaking a passable English and sounding like a real goombah from the neighborhood.
And if you can learn this grammar rule by the time I write my next scholarly post on the subtilties of the English language, I’ll even buy you a couple of cannolis as a reward.
It’s an offer you can’t refuse.
I always appreciate a good grammar article. Nice piece; I look forward to further ones.
Thanks! I appreciate your feedback. Yes, I too like a good grammar piece–although not as much as a good bottle of scotch. Cheers!
As a French person I can fully relate.. Thanks!
Ciao Isa! Does the same confusion exist for French learners of English? What about for Americans/Brits learning French?