Counting Noncount Nouns

A lot of nouns in English are noncount, meaning that you cannot put a number in front of it. To specify  how much of a noncount noun you need to measure out the part that you are talking about. Some example noncount nouns are water, air, rice and rain.

When you want to talk about a specific amount of a noncount noun, you need to use a partitive construction.

Amount    +     Measure Word*     +    Of      +      Noncount Noun
 Four                               cups                                  of                         water
Three                           breaths                              of                            air
One                                grain                                  of                           rice
A                                    bucketful                           of                           rain

*Notice that if there are more than 1 of the measure word, the measure word takes the plural form ending with -s.

Here is a list of common measure words to use for counting noncount nouns:

Article – an article of clothing
Bag – a very small bag of rice
Bar – one bar of chocolate
Bottle – four bottles of soda
Bowl – fifty-five bowls of soup
Box – a box of cereal
Can – three cans of beans
Cup – two cups of milk
Drop – four drops of the magic love potion
Glass – Two glasses of cider, please!
Grain – four hundred grains of barley
Handful – two handfuls of snow
Jar – twelve jars of jam
Piece – a piece of paper
Pinch – a pinch of cinnamon
Pint – a pint of beer
Pot – a pot of tea or coffee
Roll – two rolls of toilet paper
Slice – five slices of cake and a slice of bread
Spoonful – six spoonfuls of sugar
Tablespoon – one and half tablespoons of salt
Teaspoon – add a teaspoon of sugar
Tube – a tube of toothpaste
Tin – a tin of cookies

Some noncount nouns, usually abstract ones, use special partitive/measure words. Here are a few examples:

Act – an act of kindness or revenge
Coat – I put on two fresh coats of paint.
Dab – Give me a tiny dab of butter on that toast, will you?
Day – three days of work
Ray – a ray of light
Shower – a long shower of rain
Sign – a sign of respect
Stroke – a stroke of luck
Work – two works of art

Can I use a noncount noun without a measure word?

In restaurants and bars, you can often leave out the measure word for drinks.

Jane: I would like an orange juice, please.
Waitress: Sure thing. Coming right up.

This restaurant only serves orange juice in a bottle. There are no other options, so the server will know what you  mean even without the measure word.

If the restaurant or bar serves bottles, cans and even glasses of orange juice, leaving out the measure noun will create confusion unless you say exactly how much you want.

Jane:  I would like an orange juice, please.
Waitress:  A glass, a bottle, a can or a pitcher?
Jane:  Oh, just a glass of orange juice, please.


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