Grammar Patterns

Variable nouns

Variable nouns

Variable nouns are nouns which combine the behaviour of count and uncount nouns. They are like count nouns when they refer to an instance or more than one instance of something, e.g. an injustice; injustices, or to individual members of a class, e.g. a cake; cakes. Otherwise they behave like uncount nouns, referring to a substance or thing in more general terms.
These nouns are labelled N-VAR in the Collins Cobuild English Dictionary.
They ate all their chicken mixture and nearly all the stewed apple.
She returned to the kitchen for a tray on which were toast, butter, an apple, and a jar of marmalade.
There was a bowl of red apples on the sill.
Comparison between private and state schools reveals the distinct advantage in attention afforded to public schoolchildren.
If you make a comparison between the UK and some of the other major territories, we're charging too much.
Despite exhaustive comparisons of twin pairs in which one was ill, the other healthy, the study produced little.
Crime and worries over living standards are scaring some liberals out of the country altogether.
Though few people ever witness a crime and fewer still are victims of one, all of us are made to feel uneasy by the way newspapers portray crime.
Israeli law does not allow prosecution for alleged crimes more than 20 years old.
There followed four highly adventurous visits to this little-known land of mountains, bush and desert.
A depleted river could one day become no river at all, turning a once fertile plain into a desert.
Our nation is better known for its dry red rocks and deserts than its mountains, ice and snow.
Student newspapers report on social life, but have virtually nothing to say about education.
In Kent, for example, a relatively rich county, many three and four year olds receive an education in a nursery class.
Many immigrant parents expect their daughters to get good educations and pursue careers as well as behave in traditionally feminine ways.
He stays in prison because a government official has decided that the case does not merit further investigation.
Staff were called in from a prison nearby to help quell the violence.
The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke today on the problems of British prisons.
'I'll never forgive her for this,' Pamela said, her lovely face contorted by rage and grief.
One day, when I had worked 12 hours without a break, he flew into a rage because he had found two small typing errors.
We never knew why, but he was in one of his rages again.
In some cases information against people is based purely on gossip and rumour.
The president dismissed a rumour going the rounds here that some of his troops had staged a coup.
The Democrat front-runner fought desperately to prevent her answering questions about rumours of his adultery.
When a variable noun in the singular or uncount form is the Subject of a verb, the verb is singular. When a variable noun in the plural is the Subject of a verb, the verb is plural.
The hospital has launched an inquiry.
More hospitals are being forced to rely on the private sector to provide the patients' needs.
Here is a list of some of the most frequent nouns which have at least one variable sense:
  • ability
  • abortion
  • acceptance
  • accusation
  • acquisition
  • admission
  • advance
  • afternoon
  • amendment
  • amount
  • analysis
  • apple
  • argument
  • arrest
  • arrival
  • assessment
  • assurance
  • attack
  • attitude
  • auction
  • autumn
  • battle
  • benefit
  • birth
  • bone
  • breakfast
  • breath
  • brick
  • cake
  • cancer
  • challenge
  • chance
  • change
  • childhood
  • church
  • cloud
  • college
  • command
  • comment
  • comparison
  • complaint
  • compromise
  • confrontation
  • connection
  • conspiracy
  • consultation
  • context
  • contrast
  • controversy
  • conversion
  • crime
  • crisis
  • criticism
  • currency
  • custom
  • dawn
  • day
  • death
  • debate
  • debt
  • decline
  • defeat
  • delay
  • delivery
  • departure
  • depression
  • depth
  • description
  • desert
  • dialogue
  • diamond
  • diet
  • direction
  • discovery
  • discussion
  • disease
  • disorder
  • dispute
  • distance
  • divorce
  • doubt
  • drought
  • education
  • effect
  • effort
  • election
  • emotion
  • emphasis
  • entertainment
  • environment
  • error
  • evening
  • examination
  • excess
  • excitement
  • expansion
  • expenditure
  • experiment
  • expression
  • fact
  • fear
  • fever
  • flame
  • flood
  • flow
  • forest
  • fraud
  • friendship
  • fruit
  • frustration
  • gain
  • grief
  • habit
  • hair
  • height
  • hell
  • heritage
  • hope
  • hospital
  • imagination
  • improvement
  • incentive
  • income
  • indication
  • injury
  • insight
  • inspection
  • instinct
  • insurance
  • intention
  • interpretation
  • intervention
  • interview
  • invasion
  • investigation
  • investment
  • jail
  • judgment
  • legend
  • length
  • lifestyle
  • loss
  • meaning
  • monopoly
  • morning
  • murder
  • muscle
  • myth
  • negotiation
  • night
  • obligation
  • opportunity
  • output
  • pain
  • panic
  • partnership
  • personality
  • piano
  • policy
  • prediction
  • preference
  • pregnancy
  • prejudice
  • principle
  • prison
  • procedure
  • profit
  • promotion
  • proof
  • prosecution
  • prospect
  • protest
  • quantity
  • rage
  • rank
  • rape
  • reaction
  • recession
  • recommendation
  • recovery
  • reference
  • reform
  • refusal
  • rent
  • repair
  • reservation
  • resignation
  • rest
  • retirement
  • rhythm
  • risk
  • ritual
  • rope
  • routine
  • rumour
  • salad
  • salary
  • school
  • seed
  • sentence
  • shortage
  • silence
  • sin
  • size
  • skin
  • sky
  • society
  • space
  • speculation
  • speed
  • sport
  • spring
  • strain
  • strategy
  • stress
  • structure
  • struggle
  • suicide
  • summer
  • supply
  • suspicion
  • talent
  • tape
  • tax
  • technology
  • temperature
  • territory
  • theft
  • theory
  • threat
  • tradition
  • tragedy
  • transfer
  • transition
  • treatment
  • trial
  • tribute
  • triumph
  • turnover
  • uncertainty
  • understanding
  • uniform
  • university
  • victory
  • war
  • weight
  • wind
  • winter
  • wire
  • withdrawal
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