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My rices are nices

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Abigail Abigail | 10:30 UK time, Thursday, 3 February 2011

Welcome to February's blog. I had coconut rice for tea yesterday and it was tasty. But why didn't I say my rices were tasty?

A bowl of rice.

These rices are nices.

This trouser is nice. Those rice are cooked. Well, actually, it's trousers. Those trousers are nice (thanks very much). And it's 'rice is' - that rice is cooked. You've probably noticed that in English we have quite a lot of nouns which look like they'd be singular,but they're plural and others which seem to be plural but they're singular.

This is something we do deliberately to annoy language learners*.

Sometimes people want to know how to talk about one trouser. We say 'a pair' - I'll only pack one pair of trousers . Jeans and shorts are the same.

One pink grain of rice, among many white grains.

We can't say 'one rice' it's just not correct. Instead each one is a grain. A grain of rice.

You've probably also noticed we say hair (singular): 'You've had your hair cut.' or 'He has grey hair,' even though there are many thousands of hairs on the average head. Confusingly the singular is also hair. You don't need to say 'one grain of hair.'

The thing is, these 'non-count nouns' are things which we don't normally count, we're not thinking of them as individuals, we see them as a whole. Almost like a liquid. Rice comes in sacks or bags and we pour it out. We don't think about the grains.

The same with hair. We see the whole head of hair, and we don't notice the many thousands of individual hairs that make up that image.

But every language is different. In French, they do use the plural for hair. In German, it can be either. Does that mean they think differently about hair?

Does your language have count and non-count nouns? Do you find it difficult to use them in English? Does it change the way you see these things?

PS *Not really. But it looks that way,doesn't it?


  • Comment number 1.

    My language is Arabic ,we have these count and non-count in our language.
    I had difficult using them at first time but as the time goes by they were easy, therefore I do not see any change.

  • Comment number 2.

    It is my first post ever:) Compliments for Your blog!
    As you can see my English is bad, and I am trying to improve it..I hope this'll help:)
    In my language Serbo-croatian or now Serbian -Croatian- Montenegrin ect- we do not have countable or uncountable in this way..so for me is difficult to understand- but I am trying! Also we do not have articles- a/an or the- whose are for me nightmare!

    Sorry for mistakes:) in my writting.

  • Comment number 3.

    Hi Abigail,

    I think that count and non-count nouns are tricky part of English grammar for most learners.

    Your examples are quite understandable because we do not want to count the grains of rice or the pieces of hair. However, when there is a hair in my soup I do hope that there is only one single hair. :)

    But I do remember having problems with the word fish. We have an aquarium in my daughter's room and there is exactly 4 fish (there are 4 pieces of fish). So, I actually can count them but cannot say that there are 4 fishes. However, my dictionary says that the word fish can be both C and U. Could you please write us an example sentence when fish is C. Thanks in advance.

    Another example is the word: luggage. When I am travelling I usually take 2 luggage and 1 hand luggage, so there is (are?) 3 luggage with me. ;) To be honest, it is difficult to see my 3 luggage as a whole.

    I used to ask why? why? why? and sometimes I drove my daughter crazy asking those questions. Now, I have just accepted that there is no answer to this question and I have to learn which noun is C and which is U.

    Looking forward to hearing from you. Take care,

  • Comment number 4.

    Hi Abigail,
    Thank you for enteresting and informative Blog !
    Have fun and keep going the good Job of blogging

  • Comment number 5.

    hi dear,
    my im arabian and we have count and non count in our language ,as you know the authentic language when be spoken by the original people they dont think why they say it in this way, we born and speak it without study how or why we speak in its way.
    i dont see any any difficult in my language but in english sometimes.
    i dont think either its change the way how we think .
    thanks for your interesting blog .

  • Comment number 6.

    hi~nice to see your essay.. it's problem for me.. i'm beginer for learning english. it's confusing whenever i try to use that.
    i'm Korean.
    in my country , we just call word like water, hair, rice without dividing uncountable noun..
    if we have to check how muche water, rice there is, we can count like 3bottles of water, 5kg 2 packs of rice.

  • Comment number 7.

    Thanks for all your interesting comments.

    "when there is a hair in my soup I do hope that there is only one single hair. :)" That made me laugh, Anita!

    You're right Abdallah, we just feel what's correct in our own language, we don't need to think about it.

    And sometimes the feeling about what's right 'breaks the rules' and annoys language purists. Like in English, we usually say 'the police are' although strictly, grammatically, police would be singular. But it feels wrong to say 'the police is working on the case.' It sounds awful to me.

    'The government' is a similar one, except here we sometimes say 'is' and sometimes 'are.' There are many more like this.

    I think this is to do with thinking of the police or the government as one single thing, or many people. Like the many grains of rice.

  • Comment number 8.

    I think that our language - Vietnamese - is the most simply language in grammar. We also have count- and non-count nouns, but the noun as subject in sentence has no influence on the variation of verb.

    In using English i sometimes have trouble with non-count nouns, such as "trousers", "jeans". On this case, there is surely a difference in thinking way of English and Vietnamese. We see a trouser as an individual. We don't think of trousers with two legs. Therefore people in Vietnam would say "one trouser", instead of a pair of trousers like the English.

  • Comment number 9.

    Interesting this issue. My native language is Portuguese and we have count and unc. nouns. We say, correctly and formaly, "a pair of trousers", in colloquial language we say "one trouser", "my jeans trouser". Rice is a singular noun, but "hair" has plural form. For us "the Police" is an institution, sing. "the Police (=institution) is working on the case" not "are working", or "the policemen are working on the case".
    Anita used and abused of the word "hair". That made me laugh too.

  • Comment number 10.

    What about 'fish'? Some people claim that that word doesn't have a plural form because of its use in the Bible. But I have noticed some people do say 'fishes'. What is the correct way to talk about those water creatures then?


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