La Liseuse
Can you count lentils?

There seems to be a great deal of needless stress and confusion amongst language learners about the question of countability. Russian-speaking members, in particular, are often perplexed by the seemingly bizarre and counterintuitive concepts surrounding what we can and can't count.

'Can we count cabbage?' or 'Do you count peas and beans?' are common questions.

 

A few days ago, a young lady asked the question 'Is [sic] lentils countable or uncountable?'. A number of native English speakers gave her entirely logical answers along the lines of 'Well, in theory you could, but they're kind of small, so it's not something we tend to do.' and 'Not really. You'd normally say a pack of lentils or a cup of lentils'. All very sensible, but this didn't help the OP with her grammar very much.

 

I don't blame learners for being confused. Lentils are, in fact, countable, but who in their right mind would actually sit down and count lentils? And why is 'money' uncountable, when everyone needs to count money? It seems to me that we are overcomplicating issues here, and missing the point somewhat. In the real world, there is nothing intrinsic to the nature of a bean or cabbage which makes them countable or uncountable.

 

But this isn't about the real world, and countability is neither a philosophical nor a scientific issue. It's just a question of grammar, and, in many cases, just a question of singular and plural. The word 'lentils' is grammatically 'countable' simply because there is a singular form - 'a lentil' - and a plural form - 'lentils' - with an 's' at the end. The word 'money' is grammatically uncountable simply because we can't say 'a money' and we don't say 'moneys'. It's neither about the abstract concept of money or lentils, nor about the physical reality of these things. It's just about the word itself and how it fits into the grammar of the sentence. That's all it is.

 

So, I'd like to suggest a much simpler approach. Forget about counting. Just remember:

 

If a word is plural, it takes plural verbs, plural pronouns, and quantifiers 'many' & 'few/fewer':

Lentils are good for you. They are full of protein and fibre. Eat as many lentils as possible.


If a word is singular, it has singular verbs, singular pronouns, and quantifiers 'much' & 'little/less':

Chocolate is bad for you. It is full of sugar and fat. Eat as little chocolate as possible.

 

Here's a very simple exercise. Look at each noun in the following sentences. If the noun is plural, insert 'aren't many', and if the noun is singular, insert 'isn't much'. Non-native learners only, please!

 

1.  There .................. books.

2.  There ................... coffee.

3.  There .................. people.

4.  There .................. luggage.

5.  There .................. children.

6.  There .................. information.

7.  There .................. accommodation.

8.  There .................. stuff.

9.  There .................. rice.

10. There .................. cabbages.

11. There .................. fruit.

12. There .................. vegetables.

13. There .................. clothes.

14. There .................. work.

15. There .................. jobs.

16. There .................. time.

17. There .................. cake.

18. There .................. cakes.

19. There ..................potato

20. There ..................potatoes.

 

Bonus question: What is the difference between 17 and 18, and between 19 and 20?

 

 

 

Feb 9, 2016 11:09 AM
Comments · 28

Not a different direction at all. We're still on topic with issue of what 'wood' can mean in its countable/uncountable forms, which is one of the nouns which Olga suggested.

 

And the poem deserves posting here in its entirety for all to enjoy. Here's some culture:

 

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sounds the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

February 9, 2016

Thanks to everyone who contributed. The answers are as follows:

 

There isn't much...coffee/luggage/information/accommodation/stuff/rice/fruit/work/time/cake/potato

There aren't many.....books/people/children/cabbages/vegetables/clothes/jobs/cakes/potatoes

 

And well done to Надежда and Sarah for getting 20 out of 20 right!

 

As for the bonus question: You'd say, for example, 'There isn't much cake left' if there was a large cake to share, and most of it has already been eaten, but 'There aren't many cakes' if you're talking about a number of individual cakes. You'd say 'There aren't many potatoes' if you're talking about individual potatoes, but 'There isn't much potato' about a bowl full of mashed potato, for example.

February 10, 2016

..... continuing..

 

The situation is even less logical with more abstract concepts, where the 'meaning' for learners will be the meaning carried over from their first language. Why should a French speaker accept the idea of 'information' as intrinsically uncountable, when they have spent their whole lives thus far with the concept of 'les informations'? Or why should the Italian, whose internal grammar sees the notion of 'i consigli' as being right and proper, accept that 'advice' is by its nature uncountable? Not to mention the speakers of other, less closely related, languages where the notions of singular and plural are very different again. As I see it, few of these concepts have logical roots in the real world. It's all about how we happen to use them in the mongrel rag-bag of a language that is English. And that's before you start on internal variants. Did you know that 'accommodations' (plural/countable) is common in American English? If your incisive legal brain can get round all that, please explain it to me!

February 9, 2016

Thank you for your contributions, Herma and Надежда. I'll let you know the answers when a few more people have had a go at exercise.

And thank you for your comments, Michael. I quite agree - this approach does only work if you have a reliable example of the language to hand. But very often, learners <em>do </em>have the language to hand, but can't see the wood for the trees, so to speak. The member who posted the question 'Is lentils countable?' had the obviously plural noun in front of her, and yet she still worried about whether the issue of physically counting lentils was significant. The word itself should have told her everything she needed to know. Nor are objects the real world very helpful. Why are carrots, peas and beans collectively termed 'vegetables' (plural/countable) while apples, bananas and oranges are collectively termed 'fruit' (singular/uncountable)? Why don't we have the equivalent mass noun 'vegetable' in line with our mass noun 'fruit'?

Or how about 'noodles' and 'spaghetti', which are, to all intents and purposes, virtually the same thing? Why do we confuse our students by telling them that their grasp of the English language depends on the nebulous idea that we can count noodles, but we can't count spaghetti? There's no real-world logic to it. It isn't about the strands of gluten themselves - it's about how the English language happens to use these words in its sentences, surely? It's about the fact that 'noodle' came into the language a long time ago and acquired a recognisable English singular and plural form, while 'spaghetti', a more recent import, retained its baffling Italian plural form and so is treated as uncountable.

 

... more to follow.

February 9, 2016

1.  There .aren't many................. books.

2.  There ....isn't much............... coffee.

3.  There ......aren't many............ people.

4.  There .....isn't much............. luggage.

5.  There ........aren't many.......... children.

6.  There ....isn't much.............. information.

7.  There .......isn't much........... accommodation.

8.  There ......isn't much............ stuff.

9.  There ..isnt't much................ rice.

10. There ...aren't.. many........ cabbages.

11. There ....isn't much....... fruit. (?)

12. There ....aren't many.............. vegetables.

13. There ...aren't many............... clothes.

14. There .....isn't much............. work.

15. There .aren't many................. jobs.

16. There ......isn't much............ time.

17. There ....isn't much.............. cake.

18. There .....aren't many............. cakes.

19. There ...isn't much...............potato

20. There ......aren't many............potatoes.

February 9, 2016
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