The Partitive Case.

A nice DMQ Review piece by Nan Cohen with Hattic-style imagery; here are the first couple of sections:

1. Countable and Uncountable

My students use less when English wants them to use fewer. One of them writes: If you give less presents, they had better be good. The traditional rule, by which I mean the one that I was taught, is that with countable nouns, like presents and sandwiches, you use fewer, not less: If you give fewer presents, they had better be good. Use less with uncountable nouns, like milk, ash, and love: Put less milk in the tea.

But it’s not so simple. Language is both countable (I speak one language well, three badly) and uncountable—language surrounds us every day—like water. And English ebbs and flows, leaving strands of seaweed, shells, mysterious pittings on the uncountable sand. Fewer is being left on the shore, unnecessary to the ocean.

2. Uncountable Milk

Milk is uncountable—Less milk in the tea, please—but can be divided into countable quantities: tablespoons, glasses, cartons, those six-gallon bags that go into cafeteria milk dispensers. The kitchen manager orders fewer of them as fewer children drink milk.

The Finnic languages, like Finnish and Estonian, use the partitive case for nouns when they identify a portion of something. So to describe milk in general, you use the nominative case, maito: milk is good, milk is a white liquid, milk comes from cows. If you want to ask for a glass of milk, or some milk, or milk with your tea, you must use the partitive case and ask for maitoa. My Finnish friend explained: “As if it were a portion of all the milk in the world.” Which, of course, it is, though English does not say so.

Thanks, JWB!


  1. In English pretty much any noun can be used in both count and non-count constructions: two milks can refer to two orders of milk, or even the customers who ordered them. And conversely you get things like more car for your money.

    Can our resident Finns tell us if the same is true of Finnish to any extent? Can e.g. maidot (nom. pl.) have any construable meanings like the above?

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    The less/fewer thing is a zombie rule, or at least exactly half of it is.
    “Less” with count nouns is absolutely fine. What you can’t do is use “fewer” with a noun used in mass sense.

    Kusaal (I wouldn’t like to disappoint by not referencing the Primal Speech of All Mankind) is exactly the same as English in this:

    nidib bɛdegʋ “a lot of people”
    nidib babiga “many people”

    ku’om bɛdegʋ “a lot of water”

    but not

    *ku’om babiga *”many water”

    Kusaal is also like English in that there is nothing to stop you using a “mass noun” in a count sense: daam “beer”; daamnam “beers”, daamnam babiga “many beers.”

    In Kusaal, you can also use count nouns in mass senses, if you must: fuug “shirt, item of clothing” but fuug dɔɔg “tent” (“clothing hut”; not “hut of a shirt” – that would be silly.)

    In other words, the count/mass thing is (as in English) primarily semantic, though most lexemes that have been asked expressed a strong preference for one or the other as the default.

  3. I’m surprised at the suggestion that Fewer is being left on the shore, unnecessary to the ocean. In my experience of copy-editing for newspapers and magazines (in the US, that is), fewer is often used in correctly by people who believe it must attach to any whole number, whether the object is countable or not. In the WaPo, for example, I’ve seen it said that a person was released from prison after serving fewer than 11 years, or that a recipe contains fewer than four teaspoons of oil.

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    This is indeed exactly what the zomble rule mandates. It is believed in in the UK, too, by the sort of people who write to the newspapers to say that the Youth can’t talk proper because of all the texting.

    (For me, “fewer than four teaspoons” is fine*; but these poor devils have been taught that the just-as-good “less than four teaspoons” is WRONG and ILLOGICAL.)

    * Makes no difference that it’s a measure-word, as far as I’m concerned. Not incorrect, just a sad sign that the writer has been successfully browbeaten by a grammatical ignoramus during their formative years. I think it depends on whether you take the “fewer than” with the teaspoons themselves alone, or construe it as a sort of modifier of the whole measure-expression; “[fewer than four teaspoons] of nitroglycerine” or “fewer than [four teaspoons of nitroglycerine]”; I’m happy to do either.

  5. I don’t run into this issue very often. Is it mostly the kids who are fewer than 18 years old that speak that way?

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    Missed out the vital

    … but on the latter reading would agree that “fewer” is ungrammatical.

  7. @David L: Indeed, I see fewer a lot when used to describe something given in integral (or sometimes even rational) units, even though it is really a rounded measurement of continuous quantity, for which less is usually more natural. This seems to come up especially commonly in descriptions of time.

  8. David Eddyshaw says


    I find that it’s mainly short people, overcompensating by aggressively flouting civilised grammatical norms. Especially those fewer than four feet tall. (Bloody hobbits. Get in everywhere these days.)

  9. Jen in Edinburgh says

    In Gaelic you sometimes specify your portion of a thing – mo chuid aodaich, mo chuid airgid – those clothes which are mine, that money which is mine. Not sure about milk, though…

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    The Welsh construction for a definite object after a negative finite verb form (as opposed to a verbal noun) is, historically at any rate, partitive:

    Welais i mo’r dyn “I didn’t see the man.”


    Ni welais i ddim o’r dyn, literally “I did not see anything of the man.”

    I hesitate to pronounce on the matter when we have actual Finns amongst us, but IIRC Finnish does the same. And moreover, uses the partitive with count nouns as well, even in the positive, in cases like Poika lukee kirjaa “The boy is reading the book.”

  11. David Marjanović says

    Can our resident Finns tell us if the same is true of Finnish to any extent? Can e.g. maidot (nom. pl.) have any construable meanings like the above?

    German, oddly, circumvents it. Somehow, by whatever analogy, I can immediately form a plural *Milche, but it’s completely unusable. Two orders of milk are zwei Milch.

    Beer is different: zwei Bier are two orders of beer, but zwei Biere are two kinds of beer. Different kinds of milk seem to be inconceivable.

    Units of currency work the same way, BTW: most of them don’t have a separate plural. Austria’s pre-€ Schilling did technically have a plural, Schillinge “1-Schilling coins”, but I never encountered it in the wild either.

    This is indeed exactly what the zomble [sic] rule mandates.

    I did not pick that up. I was taught the rule – after all German doesn’t have anything analogous to fewer, so the situation just begs to be overexplained –, but either this part was quietly dropped, or I wasn’t paying attention.

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    Zomble rules are like zombie rules, but worse. They shamble more. In some cases, they do this on Wimbledon Common. It’s not pretty.

  13. J.W. Brewer says

    A whole lot of naturally-occurring things (plants and animals) that normal Anglophone people would think are OBVIOUSLY count nouns given the nature of material reality are reportedly mass nouns in Welsh by default, with a singulative construction if you need to pick out a countable instance of the mass phenomenon of being-pigs or being-strawberries or being-birch-trees or what have you. The first time I read about it it sounded trippier than some of the things Whorf claimed about Hopi.

  14. @David Marjanović: Would “zwei Milche” work for two different kinds of milk from two different species?

    It doesn’t in English, by the way. The plural beers works for either servings or varieties, as in, “They have five beers on tap.” However, milks has to be servings. *”This unusual Scythian cheese is made from two milks, mare’s and goat’s,” does not work.

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    A whole lot of naturally-occurring things (plants and animals) that normal Anglophone people would think are OBVIOUSLY count nouns given the nature of material reality are reportedly mass nouns in Welsh by default

    Not really. That’s mainly about morphology, not semantics (or syntax, even.) I don’t conceptualise my plant “children” as a mass, for example, and I refer to children in the plural in Welsh, not the singular.

    Some of these words do have mass senses (in English as well) like dillad “clothing”, dilledynitem of clothing” (English is such a clumsy language …)

    Come to that: Kusaal laukitem of goods, plural la’ad “goods.” How come English takes a perfectly good plural form, and then treats it as a mass singular? Ils sont fous, ces anglophones …

  16. Different kinds of milk seem to be inconceivable.

    “Here we drink three milks: cow’s milk, goat’s milk, and sheep’s milk.” Admittedly “kinds of milk” is far more likely.

    (Why not pig’s milk? Sows are too aggressive and their nipples are too close to the ground!)

  17. In Swedish, the difference between an order of beer, and a kind of beer is expressed with articles (gender):
    en öl (an order of beer)
    ett öl (a kind of beer)
    For several beers, you have to use a description if you want to differentiate:
    två öl – två glas/flaskor/burkar öl
    två öl – två ölsorter

    This also works for coffee (kaffe) and tea (te/the/té). However, be careful with “fika”.
    en fika – a coffee break
    ett fika – a pastry or snack for the coffee break
    If you want to be extra clear, you can say:
    en fikapaus – a coffee break
    ett fikabröd – a pastry, a sweet bun

    Milk is generally cow milk and it’s differentiated by the colour on the carton. It’s super confusing since the colour on the carton differs from dairy to dairy. The red milk could be the fat, low fat or middle fat milk depending on where you buy it. (Also known as standardmjölk, lättmjölk and mellanmjölk.)

    I first encountered the idea that beer could mean the customer in a collection of short stories by PG Wodehouse.

  18. Admittedly “kinds of milk” is far more likely.

    It’s the only thing you can say in my version of English; “three milks” doesn’t work there. I can imagine it as a restaurant order, though.

  19. Jen in Edinburgh says

    What I remember about beer in Norwegian – I don’t know if Swedish is the same – is that (unlike in English) ‘another beer’ means a different kind of beer, and if you just want another of the same kind you have to say ‘en øl til’.

    Not that anyone can afford to drink two beers in Norway anyway.

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    I was told the same of French autre when I was a schoolboy. I was delighted to discover during fieldwork in France that this was not, in fact, correct.

    Dasi’a in Kusaal can mean “a certain beer”, or “another (different) beer.” Context usually seemed adequate to disambiguate … But if you wanted the same again, you’d have to say “Bring me a beer (daam) again”, and not use dasi’a. This is further evidence for the Scandi-Congo hypothesis.

  21. Trond Engen says

    I’d probably interpret “Gi meg en annen!” as another one of the same beer, but with “en til” it would be certain. To be sure to get a different beer, I’d use the neuter mass noun: “Gi meg et anna!”. But context is everything. “Denne er tom. Gi meg en annen!”, would mean that you’ll be happy with anyrhing less empty.

  22. David Marjanović says

    @David Marjanović: Would “zwei Milche” work for two different kinds of milk from two different species?

    No, as I was trying to say. It’s altogether impossible.

    It’s worth repeating, though, because lots of other mass nouns do work like that, not just beers, wines and juices (Biere, Weine, Säfte), not only salts and sands (Salze, Sande), but also different kinds of wood (Hölzer).

    While I’m at it, Most “weak, acidic, non-sparkling cider” (the default drink in parts of Austria) doesn’t have a plural either. It’s never spoken of as coming in different sorts, though of course it does, made from tiny apples and/or tiny pears, more or less horribly acidic… maybe the trick is that it isn’t marketed much.

    I was told the same of French autre when I was a schoolboy. I was delighted to discover during fieldwork in France that this was not, in fact, correct.

    Funnily enough, German does work like that: ein anderes Bier “a different beer”, noch ein Bier “one more beer”.

  23. J.W. Brewer says

    Maybe (pace Whorf) David E. doesn’t conceptualize his children as an actual undifferentiated writhing mass, but what about his moch and his mefus?

  24. J.W. Brewer says

    To TR’s point about using what we generally think of as a count noun in a mass-noun construction, I will grant “more car for your money,” yet I find it’s difficult to swap in low-cost-per-unit nouns. A grocery store advertising “more strawberry for your money” or “more carrot for your money” sounds decidedly off to my ear. Although I suppose you can do that with other mass-ish constructions, like “that carrot cake might have been better with a bit less carrot in the recipe.” Now I’m wondering if there’s a literature on this with some sort of grand unifying theory or if there are just a bunch of different idiomatic constructions out there where particular nouns fit better or worse on pragmatic grounds.

  25. jack morava says

    IIRC in Japanese there is O’biru [honorable beer]? I know nothing about Japanese; I think I should be told.

  26. four years is less than five years

    four books are fewer than five books

    four books is fewer than five books

    four books are less than five books

    four books is less than five books

  27. David Eddyshaw says


    It’s important to count pigs, in order to exorcise them.
    Strawberries, not so much. But you can never be too careful, in my view. They get under your guard if you don’t watch them.

  28. J.W. Brewer says

    Our Lord and God and Savior never counted pigs, did he? At least in the KJV he just dealt with “swine” which seems like more of a mass noun. Although Luke 8:32 says “many swine” rather than “much swine,” which contrasts with the more mass-nounish “much cattle” found elsewhere in the KJV.

    Jack M.: according to one source (which may not be reliable), o-biiru (“honorable beer”) in Japanese is in the current century at least viewed as a sort of hypercorrection that makes the speaker seem goofy/clueless (by using an honorific prefix when it’s not cromulent in terms of the semantics/pragmatics of the situation), along with saying e.g o-gajaimo (“esteemed potato”).

  29. David Eddyshaw says


    This appears to be an argumentum ex silentio.

  30. I have personally carried 25 lb. of cat (in two living packages), and said as much.

    I have also eaten several corns, buttered, and said as much. I knew it was wrong, which is why I said it, and it was understood in that spirit.

  31. David Eddyshaw says

    I knew it was wrong

    Your transgression is very grave. Had you merely sinned in ignorance, as those do who lack the sacred illumination of the Eternally Immutable Laws of Grammar … as it is, you run a grievous risk of sharing the fate of incorrigible Sapir-Whorfists, among whose number (anathema! anathema!) JWB has recently (to our righteous horror) been revealed …

    What God hath declared count, let no man call mass.
    (And vice versa, natch.)

  32. I could have done worse. I could have said maizes. Then there would really be some smitin’ going on.

  33. Since we have arrived at the potatoes, I’ll mention that in Swedish, potatoes can be both a count noun and a mass noun, as can many other vegetables (not so much strawberries). We can buy some mass “potatis”, but also peel three “potatisar” and put them in the soup. How is it in English? Are vegetables generally count nouns or mass nouns?

  34. So counting pigs goes like, one, two, three, legion?

  35. Are vegetables generally count nouns or mass nouns?

    Generally count nouns (“three onions”), except a few which require a unit: ears of corn, bulbs of garlic, heads of lettuce. Lettuces, like fishes and milks, refers to plural varieties.

  36. nisht eyn khazer
    nisht tsvey khazeyrem
    nisht dray khazeyrem
    alts iz khazeray
    (un hevel iz hevolim)

  37. maidot (nom. pl.)

    Here you are:

    Valion perusmaidot saattavat kallistua tänään kaupoissa noin viidenneksellä, kun yhtiön aiemmin ilmoittama tukkuhintojen korotus tulee voimaan.

    The price of Valio’s basic milks may rise by around a fifth in shops today as the company’s previously announced wholesale price increase comes into force.

  38. A better example, perhaps:

    –Ei tarvitse miettiä, ostaako yhden vai kaksi maitoa.

    -No need to think about whether to buy one or two milks.

  39. The partitive/osanto is usual with adjectives, as in ‘it’s nice to…’:

    Erityisen hauskaa on Wahlroosin tapa kuvailla ihmisiä.

    Particularly pleasant is Wahlroos’ way of describing people.

  40. In Finnish at least, it can be used to indicate a place along which something/someone moves (pitkä kylätie):

    Kerran talvella olin isäni kanssa potkurilla kulkemassa pitkää kylätietä, jossa ei ollut valoja ollenkaan.
    One winter, I was with my father on a kicksled/spark on a long village road with no lights at all.

  41. It can also be used as a standard in comparative sentences:

    Pekka on Heikkiä korkeampi = Pekka on korkeampi kuin Heikki
    ‘Pete is taller than Henry’

  42. The partitive is to be used with frequentative verbs (unbounded activity, +negative verb):

    Tällaisia (adj in ei saisi missään nimessä kirjoitella.

    – Under no circumstances should such things be written.

  43. The partitive is regular with emotion verbs:

    Vaikka Katri Viippola rakastaa joulua, hänen kotonaan ei kuitenkaan ole ikuinen joulu.

    Although Katri Viippola loves Christmas, it’s not Christmas forever in her home.

    Note also joulu in the nominative after the negative verb ei … ole, which is unusual.

  44. Not used in Russian either because of the stress shift of because of confusion with molóka “milT”.

    men’she narodu “less crowded” (less of people/nation/crowd-SG.PART)
    men’she uchastnikov “fewer participants” (PL.GEN)

  45. A comprehensive treatment of the partitive:

  46. Some adpositions require the partitive:

    Tampereen Messukylässä voi nauttia vanhan kyläyhteisön tunnelmasta lähellä keskustaa.

    In Tampere Messukylä you can enjoy the atmosphere of an old village community near the city centre.

  47. Case Alternations in Five Finnic Languages: Estonian, Finnish, Karelian, Livonian and Veps by the perfectly monosyllabic Aet Lees treats of partitive, genitive, and nominative alternations in these languages.

  48. And of course, not all partitives are born equal.

    This study investigates the use of partitive objects, subjects and predicatives in Estonian,
    German and Dutch learners of Finnish as a foreign language. By comparing groups of learners
    from L1 backgrounds closely related and non-related to the target language (TL), it is aimed to
    explore the role of presence versus lack of relevant prior linguistic knowledge. The use of the
    partitive is namely largely similar in the closely related Estonian language. However, the purpose
    of the study is not only to gain valuable insights into the phenomena of L1 influence and
    intralingual influence but also to identify (common and L1 background-specific) stumbling blocks
    in the use of the partitive case, and to draw pedagogical implications based upon the findings.
    As will be shown, the study reveals conspicuous differences between the learner corpora. In
    general, the Estonian learner corpus not only shows significantly fewer partitive errors than the other corpora, but also some specific error patterns attributable to subtle L1-L2 differences and, unlike the remaining corpora, a lack of overgeneralization of L2 grammar rules. The findings do not only indicate that -and how- prior linguistic knowledge matters, but also suggest that stumbling blocks could potentially be turned into stepping stones by emphasizing L1-L2 differences in the case of Estonian learners of Finnish, and by highlighting similarities and differences from within the TL in cases of learners from non-related L1 backgrounds.


  49. PlasticPaddy says

    If the milk is in the form of identical containers I think milks could be used, e.g., as shorthand for pints/half litres of milk. However precisely with milk you now usually have two or more sizes (so two big/small milks?). Also with lettuce I think you would say two lettuces here (actually two salads, maybe lettuces transferred from “salads”).

  50. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers

    has not yet become

    We less, we happy less, we band of brothers

    (or perhaps the modern version would be

    We less, we happy less, we band of siblings)

    but if we allow supermarkets to post “15 items or less” signs, can it but be a matter of time?

  51. David Eddyshaw says

    “Less” has to imply a comparison*, so “few” is the only possibiiity if you mean “not many” in the abstract.

    On the other hand, during the latter stages of trench warfare, you might say “there are less of us now”/”there are fewer of us now”, depending on whether you were Other Ranks or a Hofficer. Rule Britannia!

    * St James the Less can only be so if there’s another James who’s not Less. Otherwise he’d just be St James the Puny.

  52. I vaguely remember my Japanese converesation teacher telling us to be careful which counter we used when ordering more than one beer or coffee or sandwich or whatever. One implied you were buying for a group of people, whilst another implied that you were planning on eating/drinking them all yourself! I *think* that it was the generic counter words – hitotsu, futatsu etc – that were the safe ones to use and not look greedy…

  53. gajaimo

    The jaga part in jagaimo is a clipping of Jacatra (=Jakarta).

    When the tubers, which originate in the Americas, were first introduced to the port city of Nagasaki in 1598, they were brought in by Dutch traders from Djajakarta or Jacatra, as Jakarta, Indonesia, was known at the time. Therefore they were called jagatora–imo (imo being the word used for all potato-like vegetables). The term was eventually shortened to the jaga-imo we know today.

  54. Partitive Cases and Related Categories
    Edited by: Silvia Luraghi and Tuomas Huumo
    Volume 54 in the series Empirical Approaches to Language Typology [EALT]

  55. Ilja A. Seržant
    Typology of partitives

    This paper explores the coding patterns of partitives and their functional
    extensions, based on a convenience sample of 138 languages from 46 families from
    all macroareas. Partitives are defined as constructions that may express the proportional
    relation of a subset to a superset (the true-partitive relation). First, it is
    demonstrated that, crosslinguistically, partitive constructions vary as to their
    syntactic properties and morphological marking. Syntactically, there is a cline
    from loose – possibly less grammaticalized – structures to partitives with rigid
    head-dependent relations and, finally, to morphologically integrated one-word
    partitives. Furthermore, partitives may be encoded NP-internally (mostly via an
    adposition) or pronominally. Morphologically, partitives primarily involve
    markers syncretic with separative, locative or possessive meanings. Finally, a
    number of languages employ no partitive marker at all. Secondly, these different
    strategies are not evenly distributed in the globe, with, for example, Eurasia being
    biased for the separative strategy. Thirdly, on the functional side, partitives may
    have functions in the following domains in addition to the true-partitive relation:
    plain quantification (pseudo-partitives), hypothetical events, predicate negation
    and aspectuality. I claim that the ability to encode plain quantification is the
    prerequisite for the other domains. Finally, it is argued that there is a universal
    preference towards syncretism of two semantically distinct concepts: the proportional,
    true-partitive relation (some of the books) and plain quantification
    (some books).

  56. “ Are vegetables generally count nouns or mass nouns?

    Generally count nouns (“three onions”), except a few which require a unit: ears of corn, bulbs of garlic, heads of lettuce. Lettuces, like fishes and milks, refers to plural varieties.”

    Unless one has memories of Peter Rabbit…

    “ First, he ate some lettuces and some French beans; and then, he ate some radishes.”

    “Mr. McGregor’s rubbish heap was a mixture. There were jam pots and paper bags, and mountains of chopped grass from the mowing machine (which always tasted oily), and some rotten vegetable marrows and an old boot or two. One day—oh joy!—There were a quantity of overgrown lettuces, which had “shot” into flower.

    The Flopsy Bunnies simply stuffed themselves with lettuces.”

  57. In Russian garlic is little heads (golovka, -ka diminutive) and they consist of little teeth (zubchiki, -chik- diminutive).

  58. We less, we happy less, we band of brothers
    It would be “We little, we happy little, we band of brothers”; which I daresay is still bad grammar in any dialect, although “We little, we happy little, we happy little band of brothers” would make a good marching song.

    We can buy some mass “potatis”, but also peel three “potatisar” and put them in the soup. How is it in English? Are vegetables generally count nouns or mass nouns?

    In English, “vegetable” is count, but the abbreviation “veg” is often mass.

    I can buy and cook “a cauliflower” instead of “a head of cauliflower” [YMMV], but I would serve and eat “some cauliflower”, not “[part of] a cauliflower”. If I mashed it first it would be “mashed cauliflower”, not “a mashed cauliflower”, and then I could eat “cauliflower” tout court. If you mash count vegetable Xes into a paste, the NP may be [uncountable plural] “mashed Xes” or [mass] “mashed X”; the latter may be abbreviated [mass] “X”. Checking COCA I find plural X for BEANS PEAS TURNIPS CARROTS YAMS CHICKPEAS and singular for AVOCADO PUMPKIN CAULIFLOWER SQUASH ONION; USEng has “mashed POTATOES” ten times more than “mashed POTATO”; BrE favours the latter. Similar COCA has 48 “mashed BANANAS” to 30 “mashed BANANA”.

  59. FWIW, I went back and determined that “gajaimo” for “jagaimo” in my earlier post was my own mistranscription (since I couldn’t cut and paste from the source text) rather than a confidence-undermining mistransliteration found in my source. Huzza for the authors and/or their copy editor(s).

  60. The endless pedantic quibbling over fewer vs less stems from the stylistic preference of a single 18th-Century grammarian.

    The simple antonym of “more” in English has always been “less” (Old English lǣs).

  61. I just remembered the Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar is the “City of Sevenscore Thousand Smokes.”* This evidently means sources or columns of smoke, from chimneys or open fires. However, under most circumstances, the plural smokes would pragmatically mean “cigarettes.”

    * It is also the “City of the Black Toga” (singular). In one of the earlier Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, it is suggested that the toga worn by the male citizens of and nobles of the city may have originally been white, but it was eventually changed to black because the omnipresent soot of in the air was staining the garments that color anyway. However, when the undead founders of the city rise from their tomb at the end of The Swords of Lankhmar, their garb reveals that the togas were in fact black from the start.

  62. J.W. Brewer says

    It would be interesting if someone could do some quantitative corpus work on the practical effectiveness of the zombie rule. You can’t do it on edited texts, because of the likelihood they have been edited to suit a stylebook that enforces the rule. But if you had a corpus of spoken discourse (let’s say interviews with interviewees with fairly high levels of formal education) you could see how often such speakers do or don’t “violate” the rule and whether that has changed over time. I feel like there are some zombie-rule prohibitions that no one (including their most fervent proponents) successfully internalizes and consistently follows when it comes to their own unrehearsed speech, even if fairly high register, but this feels like it might be one where at least some speakers manage to follow it most of the time even w/o a chance to go back and edit their rough draft, as it were. It gets tricky, of course, because there’s really nothing wrong with using “fewer” with a count noun in any given instance, so there’s no real equivalent of e.g. noticing a sentence that sounds awkwardly phrased precisely because the writer/speaker was self-consciously trying to avoid a split infinitive.

  63. Lars Mathiesen says

    Danish (and Swedish, and least part way) maintain separate linear scales for count and non-count:
    få/færre/færrest//mange/flere/flest biler vs. lidt/mindre/mindst//meget/mere/mest trafik.

    (At least in careful language. Of these, færrest is the one most at risk of being replaced by mindst by YPN-A-D, whereas the difference between mange and meget is strictly observed).

    This margin is too narrow for a full treatise on et hvidkålshoved in the store vs. noget stuvet hvidkål on your dinner plate, but yes, usage is not predictable. (It’s usually en en blomkål, for instance). There are tendencies, formed by how you usually buy the stuff I think, but no firm rules.

  64. Jen in Edinburgh says

    You can add some potato to the soup you’re making.

    But not some pea. And some apple to your fruit salad, but not some raspberry. Maybe it’s a size thing?

  65. J.W. Brewer says

    On a perhaps related zombie-rule issue, I just saw someone out there on the internet peeve (but possibly semi-jocularly? it was hard to assess tone in context …) about a headline that described a criminal defendant as having been sentenced to “over three years” in prison rather than the Obviously Correct “more than three years.” (The precise sentence FWIW, was 41 months,* but the headline-writer understandably wanted a less precise paraphrase.)

    *Within the somewhat weird context of current U.S. federal-court sentencing practice, this prime number was not actually a particularly weird outcome.

  66. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    @J.W. Brewer: speaking of mass-ish constructions like “that carrot cake might have been better with a bit less carrot in the recipe,” if you’re (like me) the kind of person who enjoys a slow-paced 20-minute Stewart Lee routine, you’ll be rewarded by his take on this issue right at the end of his “Give it to me straight, like a pear cider that’s made from 100% pears.”

    Part I:

    Part II:

  67. I think Beatrix Potter was illustrating the naughtiness of the bunnies. They who would eat lettuces, would not stop at eating those of another.

    Seriously, though, I would indeed refer to multiple plants in the garden as lettuces and not heads of lettuce, but the opposite in a salad recipe (unless I was trying to save time).

  68. Maybe it’s a size thing?

    Yes, I would say, in that you add pieces of potato but whole peas to soup, and pieces of apple but whole raspberries to a salad (unless* you’re a very finicky and/or avant garde chef).


  69. David Marjanović says

    I’ve seen the peeve over over. I have no idea if there are people who really don’t use over for “more than”, or if that’s entirely artificial. (German routinely uses über, and nobody complains.)

  70. I think I’ve seen it as well, but I guess rarely enough that I never thought it worth getting indignant about.

  71. J.W. Brewer says

    On further reflection I should perhaps add that the jocularity of the statement seemed to be in context something like “you were probably expecting me to have a strong substantive opinion on whether the length of the sentence was just or unjust, but instead I’m just going to strongly condemn the wording choice of the headline writer.” That seems fully consistent with either subjective belief or subjective disbelief in the wrongness of the “over” formulation, although I guess either way it presumes prior familiarity with the existence of at least some people who do thing the “over” formulation is wrong?

  72. David Eddyshaw says

    Never heard of it in the UK, where ladies routinely reply to impertinent questions about their age with “over twenty-one.” (“More than twenty-one” would be an outright error* in this context, though it might be a cromulent reply to “How many years have you graced us with your presence in this vale of tears, Madam?)

    * In the sense that no native speaker would ever say that, unless they had been got at by zombles** in their formative years and it had damaged their BRAINS.

    ** Yes, zombles. I’m going to double down on that one. Blame DM.

  73. …. when the undead founders of the city rise from their tomb…
    ….work on the practical effectiveness of the zombie rule…

    I think I misunderstood the second, at first.

  74. David Marjanović says

    Glad to have been of service.

  75. at lerast corpus [work on the practical effeciveness] is written differently from corpse

  76. Jen in Edinburgh says

    The more I think about the Zombles of Wimbledon the more terrifying it gets.

  77. J.W. Brewer says

    In this very specific construction, the google n-gram viewer advises me that “sentenced to more than” has for the last two centuries been more common than “sentenced to over,” typically (over the last half-century) by a ratio of 4:1 or more.* I wouldn’t think that answers to questions about age (where people would typically give just a number w/o saying “years” and where the POV is retrospective rather than prospective) should necessarily follow the same pattern. So the peever was at least insisting (or mock-insisting) that the Only Correct Way to do it (for a sufficiently narrow scope of “it”) was the more common variant.

    *That’s in their English-wide corpus; the dominance of the “more than” variant in the “British English” corpus is by a more modest ratio, FWIW.

  78. @ Lars Mathiesen

    It’s funny you should say that. In Swedish, “färst” (få färre färst), is one of those words linguists and dictionary writers think are fine, and rule pedants think are wrong.

    @ juha

    Thanks for posting more on the partitive in Finnish. I don’t understand much, but it makes me happy to read.

  79. @Moa

    Could you listen to Tiove Jansson speak? I’m interested in your impressions as to how far her finlandssvenska is from yours.

    Tove Jansson om att jobba med böcker och bildkonst
    Tove Janssons atelje
    Om Toves val av yrke och Mumins födsel

  80. milk comes from cows

    On the other hand, also maitoa saadaan lehmistä is perfectly licit and kind of recognizes that there are other milks than cow’s. Vice versa, the nominative maito saadaan lehmistä kind of implies contextually using maito only for cow’s milk.

    I lament not having a good description ready to link, but an interesting further point of comparison is Mordvinic, where most of these uses of the west Uralic partitive are already found (traditionally under the label of “ablative” though it is not at all a local case) — partial amounts, esp. of mass noun consumables, quantified nominals, and also a few less generalizable functions like reference points of comparatives (N-Pᴀʀᴛ Aᴅᴊ-Cᴏᴍᴘ = ‘Aᴅᴊ-er than N’), or objects of a group of “attitude” verbs (incl. ‘to fear’, ‘to love’, ‘to avoid’, ‘to protect from’). The full telicity contrast between partitive and accusative objects does not seem to develop until Finnic, though.

  81. Bulgarian has a counted plural in masculine nouns: “картоф” (potato); “картофи” (potatoes); “два картофа, сто картофа”; (two potatoes, a hundred potatoes). It’s a development from the dual. It gets more complicated with animate masculine nouns — it gets up to seven.

    Brett: re : Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar: that would not surprise me at all (with regards to cigarettes) — BUT, cigarettes do not exist in Lankhmar, do they? Just pipes.

    “However, when the undead founders of the city rise from their tomb at the end of The Swords of Lankhmar, their garb reveals that the togas were in fact black from the start.”

  82. I think when Brett writes “However, under most circumstances, the plural smokes would pragmatically mean ‘cigarettes’” he means “under most non-Lankhmarian circumstances.”

  83. J.W. Brewer says

    I vaguely recall mass-noun “smoke” meaning “marijuana” in the street patter of the more extroverted East Village dope salesmen of pre-Giuliani NYC. That’s consistent with what wiktionary has as sense 3 of the noun. I suppose it was a mass noun because they were not selling pre-rolled joints or other “single-serving” portions?

  84. Language hat: cigarettes definitely exist in Ankh-Morpork (Vimes smokes cigars and Nobby smokes cigarettes) but definitely not in Lankhmar. Also, what J.W. Brewer said. And I don’t think joints were sold in the ’90s pre-rolled where I lived, but I don’t know about pre-Giulianni NYC.

  85. per incuriam says

    So to describe milk in general, you use the nominative case, maito: milk is good, milk is a white liquid, milk comes from cows

    le lait

    If you want to ask for a glass of milk, or some milk, or milk with your tea, you must use the partitive case and ask for maitoa

    du lait

    In other French news, gender-neutral iel has made it into the dictionary (Robert). Cue predictable reactions and an opportunity for the harmless drudges to engage in a spot of descriptivist pedagogy.

  86. @ juha
    Sorry to disappoint, I speak sverigesvenska, not finlandssvenska. Not like Tove Jansson! As an example, I would say “gamling” or even “gamlis” for an old-timer. Some things, like how e/ä become the same sound, sound super familiar to me, while others sound quite different.

    I must say I really appreciated the interview about Sommarboken. That’s such a wonderful book!

  87. i’m not sure i’ve heard “smoke” for marijuana outside of the street-vendor patter (where the rhyme with “coke” may have driven it). but i think recreational drugs are generally mass nouns in u.s. english (*”a heroin”, *”a meth”), except when they’re being referred to by their delivery system or unit of sale (“a joint”, “a black betty”, “a gram”), or when a pharmaceutical brand-name is used (“a valium”, “a xan”) . “dolls” might be the exception, but even in jaqueline susann, i’m not sure how well “a doll” works.

  88. J.W. Brewer says

    I concur w/ rozele – I don’t recall ever hearing anyone say, e.g., “I’m fresh out of smoke so I’m gonna go down to East 7th St. and buy some from one of those dudes who keep saying ‘smoke? smoke?’ to passers-by even if they look like FBI agents.” Although this was long long ago and for good or for ill my social life in the subsequent decades was not well-calculated to keep me au courant with the jargon of the pothead subculture.

    Come to think of it, “reefer” is/was both a count noun synonymous with “joint” (but perceived as archaic-sounding in the circles I grew up in) and a mass noun for the stuff you roll into joints (but perceived in the circles I grew up in as markedly AAVEish, like “cheeba,” and most folks in those particular circles in those days weren’t affecting marked-as-AAVEish lingo when it came to their dope jargon).

    Note, however, the alliterative mass/count/mass sequence in the request of the truck-driver protagonist of Little Feat’s “Willin'”: “If you give me weed, whites, and wine …” “Whites” is presumably some sort of “little white pills,” speculated in one online source to be amphetamines. I guess “white” would be functionally equivalent (at least syntactically and possibly pharmaceutically) to rozele’s example “black betty.”

  89. Sorry to disappoint, I speak sverigesvenska, not finlandssvenska.

    Sorry, I phrased it clumsily. What I meant was ‘how different it is from your kind of Swedish?’ I can hear differences, but I’m not a competent speaker, so I guess many features would just wash over me as the same.

    BTW. I remember seeing a book titled Estniska noveller in a bookshop in Tallin, and I wonder now if it was written in estlandssvenska. Most probably not, but who knows?

  90. Ilja A. Seržant
    Typology of partitives

    The partitive particle ’apa in Rapa Nui is also used in constructions that refer to after-effects of a preceding event in a iamitive construction[41] in combination with the adverb ‘already’ (Montgomery-Anderson 2008: 313).

    This study explores grammatical markers with meanings similar to the English perfect tense and words
    like already, as found in numerous languages across the world, and perhaps especially in languages
    of Southeast Asia, with the aim of describing the main function of these markers. Such items have
    previously been treated as belonging to the same category as the perfects of European languages but
    are tentatively termed “iamitives” in this study (from Latin iam ‘already’) since they differ from perfects
    in many respects. e investigation focusses on the semantic and pragmatic factors that determine
    the use of iamitive-like markers in Indonesian/Malay, Thai, Vietnamese and Mandarin Chinese, based
    on questionnaire data obtained through work with native speakers of the languages, with additional
    data coming from a number of languages spoken in other parts of the world. e results highlight the
    differences and similarities that can be found between iamitives, perfects and ‘already’, and explicates
    a number of conditions that are crucial for the use of iamitives, notably involving notions such as
    change-of-state and speaker expectations.

    Dahl (2006) finds 21 languages in Haspelmath, Dryer et al (eds., 2005) that have grammaticalised a perfective aspect marker from a lexical source meaning ‘already’ or ‘finish’, which led him to refer to the sources as gram-types labelled ‘Iamitives’. The majority of such languages are found in the Southeast Asian region, or West Africa.

    It has been noted recently that many Austronesian languages have a category strikingly similar
    to the English perfect, but with some differentiating features. In Oceanic languages, some
    such features are a new-state-of-affairs meaning in Toqabaqita (Lichtenberk, 2008), usage in sequences/
    narration in Nêlêmwa (Bril, 2016), or ‘already’ and perfect-like category in Indonesian
    called iamitive by Olsson (2013). In this paper I focus on the semantics of perfect in Nafsan (South
    Efate), a Southern Oceanic language of Vanuatu. I evaluate the case of Nafsan in comparison to
    the semantic approaches developed for perfect (or ‘already’) in genetically related languages: Javanese
    (Vander Klok & Matthewson, 2015), Niuean (Matthewson et al., 2015), and Tongan (Koontz-
    Garboden, 2007). I conclude that the perfect in Nafsan is indeed a perfect and that some of its
    unexpected features can be explained by an aspectual coercion of states into changes of state, as
    in Tongan (Koontz-Garboden, 2007).

  91. David Eddyshaw: This [“fewer than four teaspoons”] is indeed exactly what the zomble rule mandates.

    No, it doesn’t mandate that. And as for “zombie rule”: I think it still has useful life. It is constructive and useful. For those who care to learn how to use English, at any rate, even if not for those who use it and couldn’t care less.

  92. As for this distinction which Finnish makes by using the nominative and partitive case: it seems to me that English does have this distinction: that of definite and indefinite noun phrases, obligatorily marked as such by their determiners.

  93. David Eddyshaw: Kusaal lauk “item of goods, plural la’ad “goods.” How come English takes a perfectly good plural form, and then treats it as a mass singular?

    Yes, it’s as crazy as taking “data” (things given) from Latin, then treating that as a mass singular.

  94. Google Translate translates “Un autre bière” as “Another beer” and “Un bière encore” as “One more beer”. Incorrect?

  95. David Eddyshaw says

    No, it doesn’t mandate that

    But It does mandate that. The rule falsely claims that “less” is always unacceptable with count nouns. This is useful neither to foreign learners nor anyone else. There is absolutely nothing wrong with “five items or less.”

    Google Translate translates “Un autre bière” as “Another beer” and “Un bière encore” as “One more beer”. Incorrect?

    I have actually been corrected (more than once) by perplexed French barmen when I used the second form. Google Translate may possibly lack my extensive experience of ordering second beers in France. (It was hard, but I felt I owed it to science.)

  96. David Eddyshaw says

    (“Bière” is feminine, BTW. Une bière. But you knew that.)

  97. @J. W. Brewer: the BNC lets you compare its written and spoken sections.

    There’s only two instances of “fewer than” in unscripted conversation, both from business contexts, and even if you take into account scripted speech the phrase is at least one order of magnitude less frequent than in writing.

    In comparison, “less than” is only 2–3 times more frequent in writing than in speech.

  98. The rule falsely claims …
    At least it is not self-contradictory, unlike “we never write ‘wanna'” (paralleled by the Iraqi professor who never speaks vernacular: “Ah, I was just talking to my wife”)

  99. David Eddyshaw says

    That’s just use-versus-mention. Confusion on such topics is the result of the Young People of Today not learning Lisp any more. Too busy with Java on their phones, I dare say.

  100. Yes, but how you can quote something that you have never seen before?

  101. David Eddyshaw says

    Ah. That’s another issue. Inclusive versus exclusive “we” …

  102. Are you ready to credit learners with teaching teachers to use and mention this form?

  103. David Eddyshaw says

    Yes indeed! I am a true democrat!

  104. Lars Mathiesen says

    But Java has reflection too, David! It’s very useful for hackers.

    I’ll just leave this here. Platon has nothing on this guy.

  105. David Eddyshaw says

    Just emerged from a rabbit-hole in the course of which I discovered

    1957 – John Backus and IBM create FORTRAN. There’s nothing funny about IBM or FORTRAN. It is a syntax error to write FORTRAN while not wearing a blue tie.

  106. David Marjanović says

    Yes, it’s as crazy as taking “data” (things given) from Latin, then treating that as a mass singular.

    That’s an obvious analogy to information, a mass noun in English (but a count noun elsewhere, which makes it noticeable for me). Evidence has undergone the same: 100 years ago scientists happily talked about evidences, nowadays the use of that form is pretty much restricted to creationists.

  107. David Marjanović says

    I lost it at the entry for 1965.

  108. “Lambdas are relegated to relative obscurity until Java makes them popular by not having them.”

  109. David Marjanović says

    At that point I had already lost it. 🙂

  110. The rule mandates “fewer” with count nouns (five items or fewer) but not with quantified mass nouns. “Four teaspoons of oil” is the latter and thus does not fall into the rule’s scope.

    David Eddyshaw: “Bière” is feminine

    I stand corrected. Google Translate misinformed me. (It also omitted the grave accent when I went En->Fr but got that correct when I went Fr->En.)

  111. David Eddyshaw says

    Teaspoonses are count, preciousss.

    There is no teaspoon. Or any such rule, with or without exceptions. It is a mere figment of the imagination of the grammatically illiterate. Would that there were less of them!

  112. @David E.: in MWDEU (1989 edition)’s lengthy entry on “less, fewer,” it does note that even in edited prose where zombie-rule-compliance is to be expected there are certain constructions where “less” is more commonly seen than “fewer” with count nouns, with examples of one such construction including “less than ten thousand miles” and “less than fourteen months,” and with some of the more nuanced zombie-rule enforcers allowing that this is some sort of exception to the supposed rule. I think “less than X UNITS-OF-MEASURE of MASSNOUN” would comfortably fit that pattern. But I don’t know what percentage of actual zombie-rule enforcers allow for that nuance.

  113. @David Eddyshaw then I can’t object. I still think, I have evidence for its native origin, especially as a Russian (Russian learners learn it quickly and rarely use it… I think Brazilians use it more often). I saw a teacher (not very democratic) asking other teachers (if she were democratic she would’ve addressed learners…) where learners learn it. She did not ask “what’s the etymology”, “how did they invent it” or anything like that. She was perplexed but she came up with a theory: “subtitles!!!”.

  114. David Eddyshaw says

    I have no objection to the rule “you should always use ‘fewer’ with count nouns, except when you shouldn’t or where you don’t have to.”

  115. David Eddyshaw says

    I wonder whether those more-sophisticated adherents of the zombie rule who declare that “less than five items” is a barbarism, but “less than five cups of tea” is Perfectly Fine (if not, indeed, the One True Construction), are nevertheless among the believers in the “rule” that it should be “a number of cups of tea is available” rather than “are available”?

  116. Is not it just about seeing in “< than 60 apples" underlying "< 60" vs. underlying "< apples"?

    (my preciding comment was about “wanna” (just to avoid confusion))

  117. David Eddyshaw says

    Yes, my response was to previous comments (I thought about disambiguating it, but forgot.)

    I think you’re right about the apples: it’s a matter of parsing (perfectly reasonably) “five teaspoons of nitro-glycerine” as a sort of composite mass noun, thus being allowed to be preceded by “less than”, as opposed to taking “less than” with the teaspoons alone (that was what I was getting at with my bracketed examples upstream.) If there really had been a rule forbidding “less” with count nouns, that would licence the exception.

    However, to do that requires the same sort of willingness to construe “X of Y” ad sensum (i.e. with number behaviour not determined by X itself alone) as you need to allow plural verb agreement in “a number of people agree with me.” In my experience, believers in zombie rules like the less/fewer thing will usually claim that plural agreement there is Wrong and Illogical (while perhaps ruefully admitting that even they themselves often make this “mistake.”)

  118. Perhaps there are multiple versions of the rule floating around. One that (ridiculously) says “teaspoons” is a count noun so you can’t use “less” and it must be “4 teaspoons or fewer”. And another that recognizes that “4 teaspoons or less” is correct, and “4 teaspoons or fewer” is usually wrong because you can have an amount that doesn’t equal exact whole teaspoons, this version though still insisting “12 items or less” is wrong. The latter version being an okay style choice, but not an actual language rule, while the first is flat out wrong.

  119. J.W. Brewer says

    “Apples” are harder to fit into the supposed exception to the supposed rule, because apples usually appear in integral numbers. By contrast, integral units of measure for “mass nouns” like time or distance or for that matter oil are typically just points on a continuum. “Less than four teaspoons of oil” doesn’t imply “at least three teaspoons of oil,” because it could mean 3.99 (although in a recipe context 3 7/8 would probably be as precise as you could potentially expect although even that would be a bit weird). And you can start saying in a worried tone “we have less than three hours [quantity of mass-noun time] left before the deadline!” a millisecond after the instant that was precisely three hours before the deadline. “Cups of tea” seems an intermediate situation because tea is a mass noun yet it is usually (though I guess not inevitably when it comes to refills) served in integral numbers of cups.

  120. Yes, my response was to previous comments (I thought about disambiguating it, but forgot.)

    I understand, I was thinking about the people who will be (they will) reading this exchange 20 years later:)

  121. David Eddyshaw says


    Good point. There may be those whose sensibility is so finely tuned that they would accept

    “less than five teaspoonfuls of nitro-glycerine”

    but not

    “less than five teaspoons of nitro-glycerine”

    Fieldwork among the misguided pedant community would shed more light on this delicate issue.

  122. J.W. Brewer says

    I now realize I badly misdrafted my “1:34 pm” (in some other time zone) comment such that one part makes no sense and does not illustrate the point I was attempting to make. For “doesn’t imply ‘at least three'” read “doesn’t imply ‘no more than three.'”

  123. Well. I am confident in my intuition (it describes events in my head rather than my usage, but I am confident that these events are not illusory and are taking place there), but it is my intuition about drasvi-speak. There are points where my intuition would converge with that of native speakers and I am confident that it is not one of those points. In this case it is poorly aquired English. According to my intuition, a construction “< than N X" already has potential for double parsing (and "poorly acquired" means that these two ways to parse may have originated with Russian and English parsing…).

    When N is "12" and X is "eggs" the semantics of eggs triggers reading "< eggs". It is a palpable integer.
    Otherwise I can read it as a number or amount less than N.

    “< than N X of Y" is more complex.
    But what is 4.5 teaspoons of sugar? As in "< than 5 teaspoons of sugar". It is not even an integer…

  124. “Lambdas are relegated to relative obscurity until Java makes them popular by not having them.” 😀

    Me, being a fan of functional languages still find that amusing.

    EDIT: because we all hate Java. Seriously, my advisor hated Java in her guts.

  125. Wrong and Illogical (while perhaps ruefully admitting that even they themselves often make this “mistake.”

    Your true uberpeever will say that even if everyone including him (almost always him) has always said something or other, it is still Illogical and Wrong. I’ve written in Ander-Saxon (aka Anglish); someone should tackle Uberpeever. Perhaps His Hatness or John McIntyre.

  126. Your true uberpeever will say that even if everyone including him (almost always him) has always said something or other, it is still Illogical and Wrong.

    A former officemate of mine said that about the French “double negative.” He didn’t care that the entire nation of France used it.

  127. And it seems like the whole nation of France is changing their ways. Weaklings!

  128. English does have this distinction: that of definite and indefinite noun phrases

    In all cases without exception?

    Samana vuonna julkaistu toinen single ”Tulethan jälleen” / ”Renatta” puolestaan ilmestyi nimellä Ira, minkä jälkeen Lund ryhtyi käyttämään levytyksissä omaa nimeään.

    (partitive endings bolded)

    The second single “Tulethan jälleen” / “Renatta”, released in the same year, was released under the name of Ira, after which Lund started to use her real name in recordings.

  129. Partitive genitive is quite frequent in Croatian/Bosnian/Serbian, but there are some very fine points which are not well described at all. Basically, it’s used when you want to say “some”:

    Želim vode = I want some water (genitive)

    Želim vodu = I want “the water” (accusative)

    The second example would be used when somebody asks you if you would like water or beer. It doesn’t imply “all water in the world”.

    With negative sentences, it becomes really complicated, if you want to say “I don’t have any _______”, you can use genitive or accusative but some nouns strongly prefer accusative, and others genitive, and the divide is NOT countable:uncountable, but “things which are usually found in small quantities” (like: jobs, normally, you don’t have 20 jobs at the time, or parents, wallets, cars) vs “things usually found in large quantities and uncountables” (toothpicks, salt, time).

    However, there seems to be a lot of variation, and this is one area where real differences Croatia:Serbia exist (and likely within Croatia). A lot of nouns fall in between: what about shirts? Pants? Windows on a house?

  130. PlasticPaddy says

    There are two words for “some” in Irish. Cuid + gen. is related to “cut/portion” and roinnt + gen. is related to “division”. There is also aon + nom. (also rarely + gen.) “any/some”. But in some constructions there is no qualifier, as
    An bhfuil airgead agat? = do you have (any/some) money?
    An bhfuil aon airgead agat? = do you have any (i.e., more than 0) money? To say ” would you like some tea?”, you have to say “Ar mhaith leat tae?”; a qualifier here can only be a specific one, e.g., cupán/pota = cup/pot.

  131. Andrew Dunbar says

    In English pretty much any noun can be used in both count and non-count constructions: two milks can refer to two orders of milk, or even the customers who ordered them. And conversely you get things like more car for your money.

    Are these informations really correct? Do you have any evidences to support them? I’m not sure I’ll be taking these advices.

  132. David Marjanović says

    “Pretty much” leaves a lot of wiggle room.

    Evidences has been entirely forgotten by scientists, but remains normal in other circles.

  133. the fewer said, the better

  134. >the fewer said,

    In a world in which this can be recognized as the 134th comment in thread, “the fewer said, the better” may be the most accurate phrasing.

  135. For beer drinkers in France:

    Encore is a very tricky word.

    To order a beer, say Une bière, s’il vous plaît. To get a second beer, say Encore une bière, s’il vous plaît.

    You could say Une bière encore(?) if you have already been served a second beer that you were not planning to order, that’s why servers were puzzled. And Une autre bière could mean that you want a different brand of beer.

  136. David Eddyshaw says

    Thanks, m-l!
    Advice I can use
    As I have often remarked, LH is educational.

    I did in fact go through a period of saying Encore une bière (not Une bière encore) as I was taught (mutatis mutandis) in school, but gave up after being repeatedly asked Une autre bière? in response.*

    Clearly more research is needed. I’m up for it …

    * The wait-persons/barpersons in question may in fact have mostly been Italian. This is not unusual in the part of France where much of my beer-drinking has occurred … alternatively, they may have been trying to meet me halfway, if they mysteriously deduced that French was not my L1. On the other hand, Italians speaking L2 French generally suppose that I am French … these are deep waters … more research is definitely needed …

  137. Une autre bière would still be OK in context.

  138. Are these informations really correct? Do you have any evidences to support them? I’m not sure I’ll be taking these advices.

    Fair enough — maybe there’s an exception for certain types of abstractions (though William Paley would have disagreed about evidences).

  139. J.W. Brewer says

    FWIW, Nan Cohen now has a just-published new collection of poems (filling enough pages that the publisher classifies it as a “collection” rather than “chapbook”) titled “Thousand-Year-Old Words.” I don’t *think* I’ve read any of the items included, but perhaps some Hattics would be intrigued by the blurb, viz. “Cleave, loss, spell, hand, home: words that have existed in the English language for over a thousand years. In the poems of Thousand-Year-Old Words, Nan Cohen explores such words, revealing both their touching sturdiness through a thousand years of constant use, and the radiant individuality of the experiences they describe.”

  140. urthcreature says

    David Eddyshaw clearly hates the fewer/less “rule” and thinks “less” can always be used for countable as well as uncountable nouns. I would have to disagree because (although less is definitely gaining usage and displacing fewer) most people I know do use “fewer” for countable nouns or perceived countable antecedents. The reason people say “fewer than ten years” and “fewer than six teaspoons” is simply because they mean fewer years and fewer teaspoons. But sometimes a certain amount of abstraction could occur and the speaker might say “less than ten years” thinking more of the years as a block of time. Likewise regarding the teaspoons, if a person says “less than six teaspoons” I think they’re referring more to the sum contents of the teaspoons. In most cases fewer is considered the countable form and would usually be used in print.

  141. I hate to tell you this, but you made all that up. Unless you’ve done a lot of recording, transcribing, and statistical analysis, you have no idea what most people you know say, and still less why they say it. Like most non-linguists, you’re imposing your preconceptions on the linguistic world around you and justifying the results with your preconceived notions. Pigs is pigs and facts is facts, and the fact is that the rule you were taught is nonsense, and David Eddyshaw (an actual linguist) is correct whether you like it or not.

  142. urthcreature says

    Again there are cases where even though there is a countable antecedent, the speaker may be implying a sum or block of them. So although we would usually write “fewer people”/ “fewer than 20 people”, if a person says “less than 20 people”, and we do also say that, he is probably thinking of the number of people as a sum. This may be especially common in comparative expressions (less than.)

  143. Again, you are making all that up. Don’t take it personally — it’s very common, because people naturally have preconceptions and naturally impose them on the world around them — but if you want to have grounded ideas about language, you need to at least read a book on linguistics. Speaking a language doesn’t mean you’re qualified to describe it any more than having a heart makes you a cardiologist.

  144. David Eddyshaw says


    I don’t hate the fewer/less rule: my feeling is more one of gentle pity.

    While you are wrong about the rule, I think you may in fact be on to something in suggesting that the use of mass quantifiers with count plurals is a kind of linguistic metaphor (in MAK Halliday’s sense, specifically) based on regarding count plurals as a kind of collective singular.

    The really interesting thing about the less/fewer thing is its asymmetry: it really is ungrammatical to use a count quantifier with a mass noun, but not vice versa. Kusaal, which is as unrelated to English as a language well can be, shows pretty much exactly the same behaviour as English in this respect, so there may really be a cross-linguistically shared metaphor there. Moreover, quite a lot of other languages show some points of contact in syntax between count plurals and collective singulars; Classical Arabic is an obvious case, and Ancient Greek neuter plurals come to mind, too.

    BTW Hat is too kind in describing me as a “linguist.” I am merely another poor sinner.

  145. We are poor sinners all, but most of us don’t write grammars of obscure languages.

  146. languagehat: “Speaking a language doesn’t mean you’re qualified to describe it any more than having a heart makes you a cardiologist.” — if I (might) quote that would you like me to refer to this blog comment, Steve Dodson or both?

  147. However you want to attribute it is fine!

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