Hello this is Simon,
The other day I was teaching some children, and we were practicing the sentence pattern “Do you like…?” using various kinds of food. One food I often choose to ask (and get them to ask) is, “Do you like green pepper?” because usually an even number of students like and dislike it. So, I got some children to ask this question, and another teacher said to me, “Shouldn’t it be ‘green peppers’?” I answered, “Both forms are okay.” Then I started thinking, “Is that really true?”
People talk about food all the time, but they often make mistakes. These mistakes are usually with countable and uncountable forms. This sounds bizarre doesn’t it. You would think that with something as simple as food, few mistakes would be made. After all we are just talking about simple nouns aren’t we? However, even high level English students have difficulty with this.
When talking about food we need to keep three things in mind:
1. Some food is countable.
Foods such as hamburgers, bananas, sandwiches, pancakes, eggs, donuts, carrots, and cookies are countable.
That means we can count each individual unit of food: 1 hamburger, 2 bananas, 3 sandwiches…
When talking about them, we use the countable (singular/plural) form:
“I like hamburgers.”
“I had a hamburger for dinner last night.”
2. Some food is uncountable.
Foods such as pasta, gratin, rice, stew, bread, cheese, ice cream, and ham are uncountable.
That means we can’t count each individual unit of food (1 pasta, 2 gratins, 3 rice…)
In order to count them we count the containers they are in: 1 plate of pasta, 2 bowls of gratin…
Or, we count the kind of potions the are made into: 1 slice of bread, 2 pieces of cheese…
When talking about them, we use the uncountable form:
“I like pasta.”
“I had gratin for dinner last night.”
3. Countable food can also be uncountable.
Foods such as pizza, steak, ice cream, watermelon, paprika, chicken, avocado, and apple pie are countable, but the uncountable form is often used.
That means we can count each individual unit of food: 1 pizza, 2 steaks, 3 ice creams,…
But, when talking about them we often use the uncountable form:
“I like pizza.”
“I had steak for dinner last night.”
“Why is that?”
For some kinds of foods such as pizza, we don’t usually sit down and eat a whole pizza by ourselves (well most of us don’t). So, we don’t talk in terms of individual pizzas, we talk in terms of the food or substance called pizza. In Japanese this is know as ”物質名詞”. This is also the case for something like watermelons (I like watermelon. / I had watermelon yesterday.)
“But, what about steak?”
This is where it gets difficult. People often eat a whole steak, but we don’t say “I like steaks.”, we say “I like steak.” We talk in terms of the substance called steak. I guess the reason for this may be that we think of steak as a kind of meat, and meats such as beef, pork, and lamb are uncountable.
“How do I know which form to use?”
For some foods there is no hard and fast rule. Depending on who you ask, some people will tell you to use the countable form (e.g. green pepper), and some will tell you to use the uncountable form (e.g. green peppers). The only way to know for sure is to google the word in a short sentence, in quotation marks (e.g. “I like green peppers.” / “I like green pepper.”) If one form has an overwhelming number of results compared to the other, then that is the form you should use.
Here are some examples I tried:
“I like pizza” – 1,540,000 results” / “I like pizzas” – 28,100 results”
“I like steak” – 195,000 results” / “I like steaks” – 71,900 results”
“I like ice cream” – 1,670,000 results” / “I like ice creams” – 223 results”
“I like watermelon” – 520,000 results” / “I like watermelons” – 84,300 results”
“I like paprika” – 20,900 results” / “I like paprikas” – 224 results”
Based on the above results, I would use the uncountable form of pizza, ice cream, and paprika. With steak and watermelon, the results are close enough that I think either form is fine.
So let’s try this test with green pepper(s):
“I like green pepper.” – 114 results” / “I like green peppers.” – 417 results”
It seems that both forms are fine. It’s just not a very popular food…
That’s all for now. I hope this is helpful.
See you next month!
Hello! My name is Simon.
I am from New Zealand, and have been living and teaching English in Japan since 1999.
My hobbies include movies, playing the guitar, gardening and hiking.