count/mass nouns: potato, egg, tax, sport, Lego

Some nouns that AmE treats as count nouns are mass nouns in BrE. One school of thinking on noun countability is that whether or not a noun is countable is somewhat arbitrary. The other school holds that such differences reveal underlying cultural differences. (See Anna Wierzbicka (1986) "Oats and Wheat" in The Semantics of Grammar.) So, can we find cultural differences between the US and Britain to account for these examples? Well, we can have fun trying.

Let's start with food.

I ate some...

mashed potatoes mashed potato
scrambled eggs scrambled egg

These kinds of prepared food are substances more than individuable things. You can't see the boundaries of the individual eggs or potatoes once they are scrambled or mashed. The BrE forms reflect this--they're singular just as other 'substance' food names like porridge (= US oatmeal, Scots English porage) and dip are. The AmE forms, however, reflect the state of the food before mashing/scrambling. Does this mean that Americans think more about the origins of their food? I can't think of much other evidence for that.

It's also not a perfect pattern. I've never heard anyone in Britain order refried bean with their Mexican food. But then again, (BrE) tins/(AmE) cans of refried beans tend to be imported from the US, with the AmE name for them on the label. But one also buys tins/cans of chopped tomatoes, not chopped tomato, which seems to indicate that scrambled egg and mashed potato aren't really part of a deep pattern. (There are 8 hits for "tin of chopped tomato" on UK Google, but over 500 for "tin of chopped tomatoes".)

BrE is also less likely to plurali{z/s}e sport and tax than AmE is.
Here we explain the main points that you may need to consider first if you cannot pay your tax. (TaxAid website (UK)).

You may qualify for an Offer in Compromise if you are unable to pay your taxes in full (Internal Revenue Service (US) FAQ sheet)
In April of every year, Americans do their taxes --even if they only pay Federal Income Tax. Nevertheless, it may be conceptuali{s/z}ed as plural because many people have to pay income tax at both the state and federal level. Still, one pays only one tax on one's property in most areas, but people still speak of their property taxes in the US.
If you pay your property taxes by eCheck, for your security you will be asked to enter a receipt number as your PIN. (Iowa State County Treasurers Assoc.)
Of course, in both countries, tax is money, and money is a mass noun, like BrE tax. But finding logic in any of this strikes me as futile. (You're welcome to contradict me!) In the UK, one pays council tax (predictably singular), but before that one paid rates--uncharacteristically plural. And in New York, we pay sales tax, but not sales taxes, even though the sales tax is composed of two taxes: the state sales tax and the county or city sales tax. (UK equivalent is VAT, for value-added tax. Because it's the same in every part of the country, it is usually presented as part of the retail price of any item in a shop. For more expensive items, like computers, the VAT is often listed separately. People have asked me why it can't be so straightforward in the US--and the answer is that the tax in the next town may be different from the tax in this one.)

For sport:
Girls are you interested in sport? (item on 'Making the News' website for schools)
versus AmE:
Get a girl interested in sports, the experts say, and chances are you’ll get a girl who exudes confidence, is physically healthy and is a success story waiting to happen. (Trinity College (DC))
The BrE singular uses of sport seem to treat the various types of sport as belonging to a more coherent category than AmE plural uses do. I note (from my internet wanderings) that Canadians seem to use sport in a more British way.

One more that I forgot until I found this blog entry on the topic: Americans play with Legos and step on a Lego, while the British play with Lego and step on a piece of Lego or a Lego brick.

Shall we say that this is all just a matter of habit, or can you see some reasons why the two cultures would conceptuali{s/z}e these concepts differently? Are Americans just plural-happy?


  1. Are Americans just plural-happy?

    Quite possibly, except when they aren't: AmE math vs. BrE maths. Personally, one math is more than enough for me, thankyouverymuch.

    Re sport vs. sports, I always got the impression that "sport" suggests a focus on the action-level (sport is something one engages in), while "sports" is more about discrete games (basketball, tennis, etc.).

  2. Except that the s on maths isn't really a plural marker. British people don't say *Maths are hard; they say Maths is hard (just as in AmE we'd say Mathematics is hard.

    I agree with your interpretation of the difference between sport and sports, but the 'action-level' interpretation seems to be foreign to (my, at least) AmE. I'd never say I did/played sport at school, but BrE speakers do.

  3. I was castigated recently by a Brit for the nonsensical nature of saying "math" when the long form is "mathematics," so any explanation you can provide on that front would certainly put my mind to rest.

    Another plural difference, though, is "flies" v. "fly" when talking about the zipper on one's pants, right? Where does that one come from, I wonder?

  4. Hi Ahab--

    You can tell the Brits that since it's not a real plural (test by making it agree with a verb), it makes no more sense to keep the 's' in the abbreviation than it does to put the 'e' on the end of fax just because the full form fascimile has an 'e'. (OK, it doesn't make quite so little sense as saying fax-e, but it should make the conversation more interesting.)

    Flies is good example. It reminds me of the Polish word for 'mouth' (from Wierzbicka's article--I don't know Polish), which is also plural in form. W's explanation is that the mouth in Polish is conceptuali{s/z}ed as being more 'lip-cent(e)red', while in English it's more 'cavity-cent(e)red'. Could be the same for fly/flies--Americans conceptuali{z/s}e it in terms of the opening, while English people conceptuali{s/z}e it in terms of the two sides that form the opening.

  5. Hello lynnequist,

    I found your blog through the Expats blog are on the list just below my own expat blog, Lord Celery.

    What a fascinating blog! My husband (English) and I (Midwest/Texas American) go through this ALL the time with words/terms. I was reading him your most-recent entry, and we were surprised that we'd never bumped into the Lego/Legos issue before!

    I hope you don't mind, but I've linked this blog on Lord Celery. I KNOW some of my friends & readers will be fascinated to read what you have to say...and I will be reading regularly as well!




  6. Thanks Janet--enjoyed looking at your blog too!

  7. And I've featured you on Lord Celery today. I know many of my friends & family & readers will enjoy your posts.



  8. Arguably, the AmE usage of 'Legos' is incorrect. At one point, stated:

    'The word LEGO is a brand name, and is very special to all of us in the LEGO group of Companies. We would sincerely like your help in keeping it special. Please always refer to our products as "LEGO bricks or toys" and not "LEGOS"..'

    Whether they're still as upset about it now as they were then, I don't know.

  9. It looks like they're writing to a US audience there, since the BrE use, calling it Lego as a mass, is 'incorrect' by trademarking reasoning too. Companies that have trademarked product names (Kleenex, Hoover, Band-Aid, Xerox, to name some from various dialects) are keen that their names remain "proper adjectives". If they come to be used as common nouns referring to 'that type of product' (e.g. Kleenex for 'tissue', Lego for 'building block(s)'), then their competitors can claim that the name has gone into generic use and can be applied to other similar products from other companies. I've been to conferences of the Dictionary Society of North America at which trademark association lobbyists have plied us with food and drink while trying to convince us that kleenex should be kept out of the dictionary, so that Kimberley Clark can remain the only company legally able to use that name. The Xerox corporation used to (maybe still does) take out full page adds in The Chronicle of Higher Education admonishing educators to not refer to photocopying machines and photocopies as xeroxes.

    For more info, see:

  10. Not sure I was absolutely clear at the beginning of that comment. By trademarking reasoning, it's 'correct' to say a Lego brick or Lego building systems, but less 'correct' to say I got some Lego for my birthday (BrE) or I stepped on a Lego (AmE).

  11. I've just found your blog - (got tons of work to do but can't pull myself away from all its riches).

    Here's a rule breaker:

    Br E Roadworks, Am E Road work.

  12. Pulses in general can't become mass nouns (at least since pease was reinterpreted as a plural): we can eat a bean, or eat beans, but we can't *eat bean, and ditto for pea, lentil, garbanzo (AmE for chickpea, which is also used here) and their compounds.

  13. My understanding is that "fly" really means a strip of fabric concealing the fastening of any garment, but has become associated in people's minds with trouser openings because that is where they are most commonly used. I have no idea why many British people use the word in the plural.


  14. Trivial non-linguistic point: the reason that some prices are quoted ex[cluding] VAT is not really related to the amounts of money involved - you won't see a car price quoted without it - but to the target market being businesses rather than individual consumers. The nature of the VAT mechanism is that where the purchaser is another (VAT-registered) business, he/she/it/they can more or less ignore it, since it is deductible from VAT they collect from their own customers. Despite that, some tradesmen and motor mechanics still tend to quote ex VAT, which can lead to a few nasty surprises.

  15. Speaking as a long-time resident of Scotland, I've never seen the spelling "porage" except in the context of Scott's Porage Oats (a brand dating from the 1880s), and would imagine it has long been superseded by "porridge" throughout Britain.

    We might mention that porridge, under another archaic spelling, "parritch", was indeed plural in former times. "They're grand food, parritch," as RLS put it.

    Do Americans eat porridge, and if so do they make it with oatmeal, as opposed to oat(flake)s as is normal nowadays?

  16. Americans eat oatmeal. When I was a child hearing the word 'porridge' in the story of the three bears (and elsewhere) I imagined that it was something very strange and involved to make. I think I suspected it might have ground dried peas in it (from the Pease Porridge Hot rhyme). At any rate, it was not a word that I ever encountered at the table or in the kitchen.

  17. Actually, I don't think it's as simple as scrambled egg(BrE), scrambled eggs (AmE). I think there is a, sometimes subtle, distinction in BrE betwen the dish and the food seen as the substance that the dish is made of. One would still serve scrambled eggs, but if you spilled some on your shirt it would be scrambled egg you would scrape off. "My favourite food is mashed potatoes" but "that stuff has the consistency of mashed potato". To take a clearer case, one would of course serve baked potatoes or order a baked potato, but by the actual (uncountable) stuff that your baked potato is made of is baked potato. Would an American say "you've got scrambled eggs on your tie"? Would it be "you've got (mashed/baked/whatever) potato on your tie" or "potatoes"?

  18. I suppose pease porridge would be the now extinct sense of porridge as "a thick soup made by stewing vegetables, herbs, or meat, often thickened with barley, pulses, etc" (OED).

  19. Harry, you're basically saying what Americans would do with the count/non-count of scrambled egg(s)/mashed potato(es). It's mass when it's treated as a substance other than for eating, but for eating, it's plural. Note that in BrE you get things on menus like 'scrambled egg on toast' and Delia and Jamie et al. have recipes for 'mashed potato', not 'mashed potatoes'. Unless you're massing only one potato, you couldn't say that in AmE (and you probably wouldn't say it even then).

  20. OK, interesting... in that case I'm going to take the liberty of respectfully doubting that this distinction holds true very reliably in the UK. For what it's worth, for this speaker of a possibly slightly conservative form of BrE, the plural comes more naturally for the name of the dish -- not to say that the singular is impossible. A very quick look at Google and COCA seems to show that the singular can sometimes be the name of the dish in America too? Perhaps less often than in the UK all the same.

  21. Just had a look at the COCA. Some of those are the dance and some are a rhyme for (AmE) jumping/(BrE) skipping rope to. Since these are not referring to actual mashed spuds (and I believe are influenced by African-American vernacular), they should be left out.

    Some are 'mashed potato' as an ingredient in something else. The ingredient-in-something else thing is a situation where a countable is likely to become a mass noun (as with the 'on your tie' situation). E.g. I would fill something with beet and onion, not beets and onions, if they had been rendered into some mashed/chopped form. Not that I'd ever fill anything with (AmE) beet/(BrE) beetroot. Disgusting.

    Also, when it's being used as a modifier of something else, it'd naturally go to singular in AmE, as in 'mashed potato situation', 'mashed potato variations' 'mashed potato cake', etc. in COCA. 23 of the 78 hits are modifiers.

    And then there is one case where it's a single potato that's been mashed, so that's still a countable use--it just hasn't needed to be pluralized.

    All the ones in COCA that have Mr Oliver as the speaker (I see four on a quick glance) are being spoken by Jamie Oliver--Essex boy.

    So, there are a few possible examples that might be non-modifier mass nouns, but not many, and it's not for certain that they're AmE speakers (one is spoken by a fictional Italian immigrant, I believe).

  22. Yes, I spotted our Jamie there too (boy gets everywhere), and was also taking all those other exceptions as read -- sorry to make you be the one to spell them out! There still seemed to be one or two cases not easily explained away -- but informed native speaker intuition beats a few dregs of corpus any day. So maybe the salient question is just how widespread and perhaps new the noncount sense really is in BrE. That's not something I have a very strong feeling for, just that it's not what I'd say myself or expect to hear.

  23. The cans/tins are labelled "diced tomatoes" in Canada.

  24. Does "club" work differently in BrE too? I would definitely say "the club has...," whereas this article about Liverpool's victory over Chelsea states: The club have won seven major trophies since then... Is it just a typo?

  25. Latest Anonymous: The 'club' difference is a different phenomenon, which I cover <a href=">in this later post</A>.

  26. In my experience, we Canadians use sport (and several other words) in a strange mix of AmE and BrE.
    I find that in several cases AmE and BrE words can be used interchangeably, such as tap & faucet in the next post: Personally I usally say and have heard used 'tap' in general speech, but it's not too uncommon to use/hear 'faucet', and they'd be labled 'faucet' at the local hardware stores. I'm sure I'll come across several other examples as I go through your blog (which I just discovered, and am amusing myself with seeing where CaE is closer to AmE and where it is closer to BrE and where it doesn't seem to care.)

  27. After nearly three years in the US, I've got(ten) used to most of the plural differences, but there is one that I still can't get used to:

    "A Savings". As in "that's a savings of$20".

    Why? Savings throughout the store, fine - there's more than one, but A savingS?

  28. In your example of chopped tomatoes and refried beans, perhaps they retain their plural nature because they still look like multiple things. Mashed potato/es look like a single substance, and scrambled egg/s, while often somewhat separated into chunks, are kind of blobby as well. But diced tomatoes still look like individual pieces of tomato; they haven't been pulverized into ketchup, and beans are often softened with sauce, but not mashed into bean paste.

  29. And whaty about your "internet wanderings" from the post?
    Is there any AmE/BrE difference?

  30. I don't see why that would be. It's just creative language use.

  31. Lynne,
    What about "have (a) coffee" and "have (a) latte"?

  32. It's on the to-be-blogged about list...

  33. Sport's an odd one. In BrE, there's an abstract noun "sport" relating to the concept of sport, and a count noun "sport" relating to individual events; in AmE, there's only the latter, but the collective plural "sports" takes (most of) the role of the BrE abstract "sport".

    So a sport correspondent becomes a sports writer when they cross the Atlantic.

  34. Richard Gadson

    the collective plural "sports" takes (most of) the role of the BrE abstract "sport".

    Some, but hardly 'most'.

    OUP Oxford Dictionaries Online gives distinctly different entries for US English and British & World English. The BrE version includes these two senses for UNCOUNTABLE sport:

    1.2 [MASS NOUN, USUALLY WITH ADJECTIVE] Success or pleasure derived from an activity such as hunting or fishing:
    'I have heard there is good sport to be had in Buttermere'

    1.3 [MASS NOUN] dated Entertainment; fun:
    'it was considered great sport to catch him out'

    and this sense for COUNTABLE PLURAL sports

    1.1 (sports) British An occasion on which people compete in various athletic activities:
    'I won the 200 metres in the school sports'

    Actually I associate UNCOUNTABLE sport with any and all of the organised competitive games labelled 'sports'. The COUNTABLE sports for me suggests an indefinite number of such games — but not necessarily all of them.

  35. I would be interested to see more of these differences catalogued. Staffs and accommodations are two more that I've come across.

    FLBasedBrit's 'A savings' is a different phenomenon, when a word with what in BrE would be a plural-marking 's' takes a singular article, so is presumably not thought of as plural in AmE. Others I have come across include 'a woods' and 'a ways' There must be others. If there is an explanation for this, Lynne, I for one would be interested.

    Harry Campbell, if you're still interested, Americans make oatmeal from the same stuff we make porridge from. Generally we wouldn't class it as 'meal' in the BrE sense of ground, since it is rolled, or maybe cut, oats. Instant oatmeal looks as though it's been ground but it hasn't really. I suspect Lynne was not familiar with the BrE meaning of 'meal' when she answered your question, though I could of course be wrong.

  36. "Staff" is an odd one as well. In AmE it is singular but in BrE plural e.g. The staff are having a training session today.

  37. I've recently heard on TV the word "damages" used as a plural to mean multiple instances of damage.
    The first time I assumed it was an error, but it keeps cropping up.
    I wonder if this is an AmE thing?
    To me (Southern English, born 1964), damage is not a countable noun, and 'damages' can refer only to money paid to a victim of libel, etc.

    1. ...For example, am I alone in finding the use of the word "damages" in the following passage to be odd?
      "Your ruling in the appeal of a lower court decision to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Indigenous and human rights organizations for damages caused by Ecuador’s oil spill on April 7, 2020 will directly impact the lives of 27,000 Indigenous people living along the banks of the Coca and Napo rivers."

    2. I thought I was being terribly clever citing my source like that, but Google has somehow neutered the link. Bah.

    3. @Grhm Not an AmE thing, a Common Law thing.



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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)