Sometimes nouns can act as both countable and uncountable nouns (often with a slight difference in meaning). This can make learning the rules even more complicated!
For example, coffee is generally used as an uncountable noun. However, it is acceptable to say “I’d like two coffees please” because in this case the speaker is thinking about 2 cups of coffee.
This rule also applies when thinking of other uncountable liquids and the container they might come in.
For example: “Do you want a (bottle of / glass of) beer? Beer is uncountable, but the speaker is thinking about the bottle / glass it comes in.
The table below shows usage of the same words as countable and uncountable nouns – note the different forms of the same word.
Countable – There is a hair in my soup! (one countable strand of hair)
Uncountable – He doesn’t have much hair. (usually uncountable – all the hair on a person’s head)
Countable – Do you often read a paper? (the speak means a newspaper – newspapers are countable)
Uncountable – Do you have some paper I can use? (paper is uncountable, BUT pieces / sheets of paper are countable)
Countable – Did you leave a light on? (a light in the building that the person is talking about)
Uncountable – He couldn’t sleep because of the light coming through the curtains. (the speaker means ‘sunlight’ – uncountable noun)
Countable – On the farm they have a few chickens. (the birds – they are countable)
Uncountable – I love chicken – it’s my favourite meat! (the meat – uncountable. The same applies to lambs (animals) lamb (the meat) / ducks (the birds) duck (the meat) etc.
Countable – They had a terrible time last week! (the speaker is talking about one specific situation in the past)
Uncountable – Do you have time to help me? (‘time’ in general – uncountable noun)