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GMAT Grammar: Countable vs Non-Countable Nouns

I was at Target today and noticed, as if for the first time, the sign at checkout indicating the line for people who only had a small number of items. I took a picture, which you see at the right. I’m sure you’ve seen similar signs at your local grocery store. Do you notice anything wrong with the wording on the sign? Anything grammatically incorrect?

This sign illustrates a grammar concept tested on GMAT sentence correction questions known as countable vs. non-countable nouns. In the case of this sign, the number of items in your grocery basket is countable; therefore, the sign should read “10 items or fewer” instead of using the word less, which is for non-countable nouns (see below).

Countable and Non-Countable Nouns

Nouns fall into two main categories: countable nouns and non-countable nouns. As the name implies, countable nouns are of a nature that they can be counted. For example, the word table is a countable noun because it can be seen and physically counted. Even if there are a million tables, I can still count them.

Non-countable nouns, on the other hand, are more esoteric in nature and can’t be counted. A noun like music is non-countable because, well, how would you count music? You might be able to count the number of music albums, or the number of musical notes, or the number of musicians, but not music itself.

Here’s a sampling of countable vs. non-countable nouns to give you a better idea:

Countable Nouns
Non-Countable Nouns
Pencil Music
Story News
Dollar Money
Bottle Rice
Table Power

Quantity Words

On the GMAT, it’s important that you recognize and use the appropriate “quantity word” to identify countable vs. non-countable nouns. As in the sign referenced above, it’s important to recognize that the noun being referenced by the word “less” on the sign is actually a countable noun (“item”), and therefore the quantity word “fewer” must be used. Here’s a list of the most-commonly tested GMAT quantity words that you should know and use appropriately for countable vs. non-countable items:

For Countable Items, use:
For Non-Countable Items, use:
fewer less
number amount
many much

For example, consider this sentence:

e.g. I continue to be shocked at the amount of yellow cards earned each game by my favorite soccer team.

Do you see anything wrong with that sentence?

Hopefully after consulting the table above, you recognized that the quantity word number needs to be used in place of amount to refer to the countable noun “yellow cards.” If this were a GMAT sentence correction question, a correct answer choice would read:

Correct: I continue to be shocked at the number of yellow cards earned each game by my favorite soccer team.

With that, I hope this concept helps you to have much success on the GMAT verbal section!