Weekly Writing Tip #16

This post was written by James Hayashi. James is the writing advisor for USC Rossier Online and Rossier’s Masters Programs office. He earned his Master of Professional Writing from USC, and enjoys writing in the field of creative non-fiction in his (limited) free time.


What’s the difference between dollars and money?  Probably many things, actually, but the one on which we’ll focus today is that the first is countable and the second is not.

A countable noun is, as its name implies, any noun which can be counted.  For example, we can count one table, two dreams, three students, or four ideas.  As the examples of dreams and ideas demonstrate, a noun doesn’t need to be tangible to be countable.

A non-countable noun, by contrast, is any noun that can’t be counted.  For example, we can’t count five rice, six courage, seven money, or eight milk.  (Some non-countable nouns can be paired with counter nouns–five grains of rice, or eightcups of milk, for example.)

Why does this matter?  It matters because according to the sometimes arcane rules of English grammar, we use different words with countable and non-countable nouns:

Countable Nouns
few
fewer
fewest
many
the number (of)
(counted)

Non-countable Nouns
little
less
least
much
the amount (of)
(measured)

So while it would be correct to say “Carson counted Lord Grantham’s snuff boxes to ensure that the correct number was in the case,” it would be incorrect to say “Carson measured Lord Grantham’s snuff boxes to ensure that the correct amount was in the case” Snuff boxes are countable, so we must use the words from the “Countable Noun” list.

In fact, many grammarians are driven crazy at their local grocers when looking at express line signs that declare, “10 items or less.”  Since items is a countable noun, the signs should, of course, read, “10 items or fewer.”

One easy way to make sure you’ve correctly applied this rule in your papers is to use the find function (Ctrl + F), and look for “less.”  (The overwhelming number of errors occurs when writers use “less” for “fewer.”)  Be sure you’ve used “fewer” for countables and “less” for non-countables.

I hope this tip can be measured counted among the much many helpful entries on our blog.

Happy writing!