What is the difference between apples and sugar?
What is the difference between light-bulbs and electricity?
What is the difference between trees and rain?
What do you think? Do you give up? Shall I tell you?
The difference between apples and sugar is simply this. You can count apples – one apple, two apples, three apples etc. You cannot count sugar. You can weigh sugar, you can measure sugar, but you cannot count sugar. And it is the same with lightbulbs and electricity, and trees and rain. You can count lightbulbs and trees; you cannot count electricity or rain.
Does this matter, you may be asking? Why is he telling us these things?
Well, dear listeners, often we want to say “how many?” or “how much?” of something there is. And when we do this we need to remember that there are some words which we can use only with things we can count, and other words which we can use only with things we cannot count. Here are some examples.
We can count cars – one car, two cars etc. We can say:
- there are only a few cars on the road today
- there are many cars on the road today
- there are several cars parked outside my house
- there are fewer cars than there were yesterday
“Few”, “many”, “several” and “fewer” are words that we can use with things we can count, like cars. But we cannot use them with things that we cannot count.
Or, imagine that you are painting your house. We cannot count paint. We can weigh paint, and we can measure paint, but we cannot count paint. We can say:
- I need a little paint for the kitchen (or a little bit of paint for the kitchen).
- so I do not need to buy much paint.
- but I need a large amount of paint for living room.
- I need less paint for the bathroom than for the bedroom.
“A little”, “much”, “a large amount of” and “less” are words that we can use with things that we cannot count like paint, but not with things that we can count.
How do you know what things we can count and what things we cannot count? Well, generally, if a noun is a plural noun (if it has an “-s” on the end), then it is the name of something we can count, like apples or cars. And if the noun is singular (no “-s” on the end) then it is the name of something that we cannot count, like electricity or rain. If you find it easier, think “plural or singular” instead of “countable or not countable”. And remember that there are also lots of words and expressions that you can use both with things you can count and with things that you cannot count (“lots of..” is one of them).
There is a grammar note on the podcast website with a PDF file which you can download. And there is also a quiz, so that you can test whether you have understood the podcast.
Finally, here is a problem for you to think about. In many supermarkets in England, they have a check-out which is specially for people who only want to buy a few things. This is so that they do not have to wait a long time behind people who are buying a whole month’s groceries for a family of 12 people. There is a sign to show which is the check-out for people who are buying only a few things. In some supermarkets, the sign says “10 items or less”. But in one supermarket, it says “10 items or fewer”. Which one is right? Answer next time.
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