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Ask a Teacher: Foods We Count...or Don't

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You probably know a lot of food words, such as bread, apple and rice. But knowing which foods are countable and which are not can be tricky.

In today's Ask a Teacher, Abdo from Sudan writes:

Question:

How do I know which foods can be plural? For example, if I want two of some food, can I say, "I would like two beefs" or "I would like two breads"? – Abdo, Sudan

Answer:

Hello Abdo and thanks for writing to us!

To answer your question, it depends on where you are asking for these things.

If you are asking for bread in a restaurant, you're probably asking for slices (or pieces), but in a bakery, you're probably asking for loaves. If you are asking for beef in a market, you're probably asking for grams. But, in a restaurant, you're likely to ask for pieces.

Noncount Nouns

In other words, you do not add an "–s" to "beef" or "bread." That is because these foods are noncount nouns – nouns that have only one form. They do not have a plural. Meats, grains and liquids are usually noncount nouns. Sugar, salt and pepper are, too.

To show you are talking about more than one of these nouns, you put another word or phrase in front of them. Often different foods take different wording.

Below are some common phrases you might use:

A farmer sells ears of corn. These different types of corn native to the Andes Mountains.
A farmer sells ears of corn. These different types of corn native to the Andes Mountains.

Grains

Two bowls of rice

Two ears of corn

Two bags of flour

Two pieces or loaves of bread

Meats

"Piece" also works for meats when you are asking for an amount of food for a plate:

Two pieces of chicken

Two pieces of lamb

Two pieces of fish

Two pieces of beef

If you are shopping in a market, you might ask for two grams of chicken, lamb or other meat.

Liquids

With liquids, you often describe the container it comes in.

Two glasses of water, milk or juice

Two cups of coffee or tea

Two cans or bottles of soda

Two pitchers of lemonade

A cup of coffee. Special cups for coffee or tea are sometimes called 'mugs.' But we usually do not say 'mug of coffee.'
A cup of coffee. Special cups for coffee or tea are sometimes called 'mugs.' But we usually do not say 'mug of coffee.'

Sugar, salt & pepper

For sugar, salt and pepper, it also depends on whether you are purchasing an amount or just want a small amount for your meal.

Two packs or bags of sugar or

Two pinches or shakers of salt or pepper

Count Nouns

The good news is that most other food nouns are count nouns. They have singular and plural forms. For example, "apple" is a singular count noun. To make it plural, you can just write or say "apples." Whew! That is a lot easier.

And that's Ask a Teacher.

I'm Alice Bryant.

Do you have a question for Ask a Teacher? Write to us in the Comments area. Be sure to list your country of origin.

Words in This Story

plural - adj. relating to a form of a word that refers to more than one person or thing

phrase - n. a group of two or more words that express a single idea but do not usually form a complete sentence

flour - n. powder made from a grain (especially wheat) that is used in cooking for making bread, cakes and other foods

pitcher - n. a container with a lip and handle that is used for holding and pouring out liquids

singular - adj. showing or indicating no more than one thing

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