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Consider the following :

  1. He likes dogs.
  2. He likes dog.

(1) would mean he likes dogs as pets and (2) refers to dog as food.

My question is, does the same apply to nouns such as orange and oranges?

  1. He likes oranges.
  2. He likes orange.

Just wish to confirm that (1) and (2) are really both acceptable. If they are, do they have different meanings?

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"He likes orange" - orange means color. "He likes oranges" - oranges means fruits (food). Don't know about any rule though. Maybe someone will provide you with any. –  Philoto Jun 9 '11 at 12:22
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I suspect that "he likes dog" is just shorthand for "he likes dog meat". –  tenfour Jun 9 '11 at 12:26
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Woof. Likes human. –  Cerberus Jun 9 '11 at 13:31
    
"To Serve Man" - tastes like chicken! –  MT_Head Jun 10 '11 at 6:06
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5 Answers 5

up vote 10 down vote accepted

My first impression is that

He likes orange.

means he likes the color orange (or he likes orange-flavored things).

He likes oranges.

means he likes the fruit.

When you use the plural "dogs," you are quantifying the animal, so you mean whole units of dog. Therefore, you imply that you are talking about dogs as pets or animals or whatnot.

When you use just "dog," you are using an uncountable noun, indicating that you are talking about "dog" in an abstract sense. It is normal for us to think about food in this context, because dogs are animals, but it really isn't necessarily the case. Consider:

I like televisions.

I like television.

In the first sentence, I am saying that I like the devices or specific instances of "television." In the second sentence, I am saying I like "television" in a conceptual, abstract sense. In this case, we don't think I mean television is something to eat because television is not edible. Instead, we assume I'm talking about television programming.

It's not as clear for oranges, I think in part because orange is a color as well as a fruit. However, let's look at bananas:

I like bananas.

I like banana.

The first one means "I like the fruit," while the second one gives the impression that you like anything banana-flavored.

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@Stanley I thought I'd beef up my answer with a little more explanation. –  KitFox Jun 9 '11 at 12:40
    
orange could also refer to the flavour. –  Matt Эллен Jun 9 '11 at 12:49
    
@Matt good point. I'll add that. –  KitFox Jun 9 '11 at 12:50
    
@Kit, about the television(s) example, do you mean that with and without the "s" are the same ? –  Stanley Jun 9 '11 at 13:03
    
@Stanley No, that they are not the same. Let me patch that up. –  KitFox Jun 9 '11 at 13:05
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Countable vs. Noncountable

The food/non-food distinction is just a symptom of a larger phenomenon.

What you are actually playing with in this question is the use of a noun in its countable sense vs. its mass-noun sense.

In English, when we speak generally about something stative or habitual, then, if there is an object, the object is pluralized:

I like apples.

However, some nouns have no plural because they are non-countable (i.e. mass nouns), like milk:

I like milk. (You would never say "I like milks".)

Now, the distinction you are noticing is that, for many countable nouns, there is also a mass noun counterpart. This mass noun form (should it exist) occurs when the countable object has, in some way, been split into pieces, mashed, ground up, liquified, or otherwise been rendered into a form where its discrete qualities are absent/irrelevant.

So if I am eating a cookie I would say:

This is a good cookie.

But if some crumbs end up on my shirt, I might say:

I got (some) cookie all over my shirt. (not "a cookie" or "some cookies")

When we refer to animals that we can eat, they are countable as long as they retain their discrete properties (usually while they are still alive):

I like chickens. (still countable)

But when the chicken is cut up into pieces and sitting on your plate, there is no exact piece of chicken that constitutes "a chicken". So, instead, you would say:

  • I am eating chicken.
  • I like chicken.

However, if you bought an entire chicken, baked it whole, and your family ate it at dinner, then you could grammatically say:

Our family had a chicken for dinner last night.

As well as:

Our family had chicken for dinner last night.

The only difference is that the latter sentence is ambiguous as to whether you had a whole chicken or, say, a bunch of chicken breasts.


In the case of your orange examples, you interpret the oranges sentence as whole oranges. If you like "oranges", it means you like more than just orange flavoring; "oranges" evokes the idea that you like taking a whole orange and eating it.

When you say "I like orange", it can mean two things:

  1. It can mean that you like orange flavoring — the taste of orange. If you are talking about cooking, maybe you like orange in certain foods.

  2. It can mean that you like the color orange. This one is a slightly different variation on the "uncountable" idea. The color orange, like happiness and exhaustion, is a universal concept that there can only be one of in the universe (when the word is used in its general sense). So, these concepts are uncountable because we only have one universe (that we can observe). Happiness is a single thing that you either have or don't have — if two people are happy, they haven't found "happinesses", just "happiness". (Sometimes universal concepts have have secondary meanings that are countable, e.g. "one of the many joys", but such meanings are not talking about the universal concept.)

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Side note: a corollary to the idea that countable nouns can be uncountable in certain senses (chickens -> chicken) is that mass nouns can be countable in certain senses. Like, when ordering drinks at a restaurant, the words water or coffee can represent a single serving of said liquid in a cup. In that case, you can say "we'd like waters all around", using waters as a countable noun. –  Kosmonaut Jun 9 '11 at 14:10
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A small complication is that due to historical accident (the Norman Conquest), some of the mass nouns for food are different words from the corresponding countable nouns. "I like cows"/"I like beef", "I like pigs"/"I like pork", and so on. –  user1579 Jun 9 '11 at 15:19
    
To follow up on the comments here, the ability to use a count noun in a mass sense is sometimes referred to in the (academic) linguistics literature as the "Universal Grinder", e.g. There was a lot of cow splattered across the road. In opposition to the grinder is the "Universal Packager", which refers to the ability to use a mass noun in a count sense; e.g., We have a lot of beers on tap. –  jyc23 Jun 10 '11 at 0:14
    
thanks for your in depth analysis. Your comments and others make people realize that English can indeed be a very interesting subject. –  Stanley Jun 10 '11 at 0:17
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"He likes dog" is not wrong. It would simply be construed to mean he eats dogs and likes the taste.

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@Robusto: Really? I didn't know that :O Maybe I should correct my answer then :D –  Alenanno Jun 9 '11 at 12:31
    
@Alenanno: Some people eat dog. Seriously. Anyway, weren't you off to lunch just a little while ago? Hmm ... –  Robusto Jun 9 '11 at 12:38
    
@Robusto The weird thing is that if he asked "He likes fish." I would have understood that! But with dog it seemed wrong... :| Yes I know some eat dogs, I've heard of that... Anyway, yes, but I'm done now! :D –  Alenanno Jun 9 '11 at 12:41
    
Also about orange as a color, what happens if the sentences are : (1) I like apple. (2) I like apples. Do they make any difference ? –  Stanley Jun 9 '11 at 12:47
    
Well, forgot that apple might imply Apple Computer. So replace apple with carrot(s) :) –  Stanley Jun 9 '11 at 12:50
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The sentence "He likes dogs." means that he likes the animal called dog.

"He likes dog.", as Robusto mentioned, means what you said in the question.

"He likes orange." might be interpreted as in "He likes the colour orange.", while "He likes oranges." means "He likes the fruit named orange."

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But people would say "they like chicken" to imply having chicken as food. Can we apply the same to other nouns such as dog, fish or snake ? –  Stanley Jun 9 '11 at 12:31
    
I think so. "He likes fish." and "He likes snake." make me think of that... I can't understand why I thought it was wrong... :| –  Alenanno Jun 9 '11 at 12:33
    
He likes fish is different (more ambiguous?) because fish is the plural of fish. –  Matt Эллен Jun 9 '11 at 12:50
    
@Alenano, need to thank you for your detailed explanations and for helping to edit my silly mistakes. –  Stanley Jun 10 '11 at 0:48
    
@Stanley no problem! :D –  Alenanno Jun 10 '11 at 7:59
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"He likes orange." means the person likes the color orange. "He likes oranges." means the person likes to eat oranges.

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