Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Pears and Pineapple

Posted by Neal on May 12, 2008

“Best by May 2008,” I read on the bottom of the can of pears. Did that mean best by May 1, I wondered, or best by May 31? Probably May 31, I decided. In any case, even if it meant by May 1, that didn’t mean the pears were actually bad, did it? Just not at their peak of flavor, right? After all, best by wasn’t the same as use by, or even sell by. All the same, I knew if my wife saw that label, she’d throw the pears out. So I did what needed to be done: I opened the can and served those pears to Doug and Adam for breakfast.

As I fished out the pear halves, my thoughts drifted from pears in cans to pears in jars. Baby food jars. Three-ounce jars of pureed pears that we’d fed to Doug and Adam when they were babies. With the canned pears, I could count the halves and know that about 5 pears had gone in. With the pureed pears, it was impossible to say how many the jar contained, but it couldn’t have been more than one. Less than that, actually, since these pears were mixed with pureed pineapple. And yet the label had said, “Pears and pineapple”. Not “pear and pineapple”, or “pear and pineapples”, or “pears and pineapples”.

A joke about English linguistics is the so-called universal grinder (attributed to David Lewis in endnote 7 of this paper). Any count noun can be turned into a mass noun by means of this imaginary tool. The canonical demonstration is with the noun chair — it’s clearly a count noun, since you can talk about one, two, or more chairs. Like other count nouns, and unlike mass nouns, its singular form has to partner with a determiner in order to form a noun phrase — that is, you can’t say *I built chair or *Chair smells like mildew; it has to be I built {a, this, her, …} chair and {This, my, every, that, …} chair smells like mildew. However, if you imagine pushing a chair through the universal grinder, all of a sudden chair can be a mass noun: Chair was all over the floor; the box was filled with coarsely ground chair.

The universal grinder (or a suitable substitute) can also convert proper nouns to mass nouns. An episode from season one of Lost did this when an insufferable minor character named Arzt, in front of several regular characters, accidentally blew himself up with a stick of unstable, centuries-old dynamite. Minutes later, one of the remaining characters told another, “Dude, you’ve got some … Arzt … on you.”

Mass nouns often serve as the “food” versions of count nouns that refer to animals. Thus, you can eat chicken, turkey, duck, crab, lobster, fish, turtle, squirrel, and rattlesnake. Even if you reject the nouns beef and pork, you’d probably talk about eating cow and pig, not cows and pigs. And as Homer Simpson reassured the soon-to-be-vegetarian Lisa regarding the lamb chop on her plate, “Lisa, it’s lamb, not a lamb!” (Search for “vegetarian” here.)

But when it comes to fruits and vegetables, even after a pass through the universal grinder (or a real-world food processor), not all of the count nouns turn into mass nouns. Some, like pears, remain count nouns. Let’s say you see your friend sitting in front of a bowl, gobbling down spoonfuls of some unidentified goo, or drinking some kind of unfamiliar smoothie. You ask, “What are you eating?” or “What is that?” Your friend might say…

  • pears
  • peaches
  • apricots
  • plums
  • bananas
  • grapes
  • {straw-, blue-, black-, snozz-}berries
  • oranges
  • (sweet) potatoes
  • yams
  • turnips
  • beans
  • radishes
  • carrots
  • beets
  • mushrooms
  • olives
  • onions

Or they might say…

  • pineapple
  • coconut
  • papaya
  • guava
  • kiwi
  • durian
  • watermelon
  • cantaloupe
  • grapefruit
  • tangerine
  • pumpkin

In my grammar, at least, I don’t think you can answer with the singular forms of the items I have in the plural, or vice versa, though there are some that I think could go either way. For example, I don’t know whether I’d say mango or mangoes, cucumber or cucumbers, or tomato or tomatoes.

As for why some words end up as mass nouns and others as plural count nouns, for a while I was thinking a rule like this would do it:

If someone could reasonably eat at least one of a given fruit or vegetable in a sitting, judging by size alone and not by taste, then its cut up/mashed/strained/pureed form will be referred to by a plural count noun. Otherwise, this form will be referred to by the singular form of the noun, used as a mass noun.

However, there are too many exceptions to it in my lists, not to mention the uncertainty with mango, cucumber, and tomato. Now I think that a rule like this may be in effect, but that it’s a weak rule, subject to override when one noun shares semantic properties with some others and gets attracted into their class regarding its mass/plural behavior. Thus, even though someone could probably eat an entire kiwi, mango, or papaya in one sitting, which would favor kiwis/mangoes/papayas for the “mashed” form, they get attracted into the semantic class of “tropical fruit” including pineapple and coconut, and end up as kiwi/mango/papaya.

The forum is open for alternative rule suggestions, including rules that describe the distribution of mass nouns and plural nouns for fruits and vegetables in your grammar, if your judgments don’t match mine.

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11 Responses to “Pears and Pineapple”

  1. The Ridger said

    I’d say “tangerines” and I think the rule is: if it’s huge or weird/funny/foreign, it’s mass.

  2. Ellen K. said

    Onion(s) it depends. If they are a separate dish, onions. But if I’m putting them in something, I think I’d be inclined to say onion, or, it saying onions, the thinking is multiple pieces of onion. If I were to imagine an onion powder, it would definitely be onion.

    I starting wondering if this thinking was analygous to spices. Thinking about spice names, most don’t have count versions (parsley, sage, basil, oregano). The only ones I can think of that do, ground cloves, but celery (etc) seed. (Dill weed comes to mind, but in this case, “a dill weed” would be a stray dill plant growing where it shouldn’t, not the dill leaves not yet chopped into dill weed.)

  3. dgm said

    What of the word “hair”?

    Whenever someone says, “I got my hair cut,” I like to ask, “Which one?” It gets old, but I can’t stop myself.

  4. Viola said

    Dgm: I want to do the same thing! What’s even worse is when people dye their hair and openly admit it, I want to ask, “What product did you use to “kill” the last color?” *high hat* But I don’t…Oh if only my guts were as gutsy as yours.
    Neal: How would you classify broccoli and celery? I now have the tune of Veggietales impregnated in my brain…like an earworm, but not like a herpes virus.

  5. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    Whether I treat a fruit/vegetable name as singular or plural depends mainly on context; it doesn’t always follow the “whole item at one sitting” rule. Contrast these examples:

    1a. “There’s too much orange in this smoothie.” (I’m thinking of the fruit pulp as one hard-to-separate ingredient in the mix.)

    1b. “The oranges in this fruit salad taste strange.” (Even if the cook sliced up just one orange, I’m thinking of the fruit as separate pieces.)

    2a. “I ordered lettuce and tomato on my hamburger.” (The fact that “lettuce” here is singular may affect the other word–besides, there’s just one slice of tomato on most burgers!)

    2b. “I ordered mushrooms and tomatoes on my pizza.” (Two plurals; more than one mushroom obviously gets used in the dish, and chopped/sliced tomatoes are still countable pieces.)

    2c. “After a few slices of pizza, I’d gotten tomato all over my napkins.” (The tomato here is a hard-to-separate substance.)

  6. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    P.S. Neal, shouldn’t this post also have the “food-related” tag?

  7. TootsNYC said

    I edit recipes, and we actually watch out for this issue. And we’re rigidly literal.

    If the ingredient list says “2 carrots, grated,” then later we will say “add the grated carrots.”

    If it says “1 carrot, grated,” later we will say “add the grated carrot”–though I know I more often take OFF the “s” at the end of the word, so I’m not matching the food folks.

    But this is not actually idiomatic. My idiomatic choice would be to say “add the grated carrot,” as a mass.

    Next time you read a recipe, look to see what the recipe editors have done.

    (Dgm and Viola, I have been known to say, “I got my hairs cut.”)

  8. Tom said

    I use the mass form customarily for a number of the nouns you’ve listed as count; specifically pear, banana, (sweet) potato, yam, and onion. “Pear” and “banana” are foods I customarily grind up for my 6-month old — we always use the mass form when referring to food we put through the mill. The only exceptions I can think of are “beans” and “peas”, which I think stands out as strongly a count noun because we actually see the individual beans and peas on the plate.

  9. Tom said

    Ok — I can add from spontaneous experience tonight that I mass-noun-ify even “beans” and “peas”, as I discovered tonight when I commented about my daughter that “she has pea all over her face”, which brought on quite a bit of laughter from all at the table.

  10. Neal said

    TootsNYC: Thanks for your useful suggestion of where to look for data.
    Tom: Thanks for your firsthand data. Your “pea all over her face” story made me laugh out loud.

  11. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    Tom: That story made me giggle for a few minutes, too! Just out of curiosity, were the veggies smeared into some kind of green goo that made it impossible to tell one pea from another? If they were, then you seem to have a “stronger” version of my rule: if the food’s become inseparable “stuff”, then it usually gets mass-noun treatment.

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