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I am new to the English language and I am going to English classes. In the middle of my book, we have a lesson about foods. In this lesson, food names are explained but I do not understand something.

We say and write the sandwich or the hamburger. However, when we say and write pizza, coffee, chocolate or noodles, we do not use the. What is there such a difference?

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I don't know the details of your book, but what you are noticing is that sandwich is always a count noun; hamburger is almost always a count noun; pizza can be either count or non-count; and coffee, chocolate and noodles are usually non-count. I am not going to try to explain the rules for countable and uncountable nouns here, but now that you know the name for what's going on, you should be able to do some research and understand it. (Count nouns are also called countable, and non-count are also called mass nouns). –  Peter Shor Feb 14 '12 at 22:03
@Peter Shor: The implication of not going to try to explain the rules is that you think there are "rules", at least to some extent. I suspect it's largely a matter of whether you can in principle hold an entire portion in one hand without a container, but I admit this is just a guess. –  FumbleFingers Feb 14 '12 at 22:37
I think the rule is pretty straight-forward (albeit there are various hard cases and exceptions): Things that come in discrete units that can be counted are countable; things that come in an amorphous mass that can only be measured are non-countable. So for example you can say, "I put two cups on the table." "cups" is countable. But you wouldn't say, "I put two waters in the cup." Water is (generally) non-countable. You could say, "I put two milliliters of water in the cup" or some other measurement, but you can't count "how many waters". (continued ...) –  Jay Feb 15 '12 at 19:46
(... continued) But then you get to the odd cases: People will sometimes say, "The waitress brought two waters", meaning she brought two glasses of water. But that's not all that mysterious either: once you agree that "water" can mean "a glass of water", it's logically countable. –  Jay Feb 15 '12 at 19:47
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4 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

There are some non-standard things going on here, but for the most part this is the basic countable versus non-countable rule.

In general, if a noun refers to something that you can count, you must precede it with an article, a number, or some word indicating a quantity. If a noun refers to something that you can't count, then you don't use the article or number.

So for example, "I ate a sandwich." Sandwich is countable: you could have one sandwich, two sandwiches, etc. But "I drank milk." You don't normally talk about "one milk" or "two milks". (But we'll get back to this in a moment.) Chocolate is a general term for a substance, so you'd say, "I like chocolate." But you can make countable things out of this substance, like "I ate a chocolate bar" or "I ate a slice of chocolate cake."

But now we get to a lot of non-standard usages. People will often say, "I ordered a coffee". This is really short for "I ordered a cup of coffee", but in practice we turn the non-countable noun into a countable noun. "The waitress brought three beers" means she brought three glasses, bottles, or cans of beer, etc.

Similarly, people use "chocolate" as a countable noun to refer to small pieces of specialty chocolate candies (like Witman Samplers or your typical Valentine chocolates). So "I ate two chocolates" means "I ate two of those small pieces of chocolate candy." You would not normally use "a chocolate" to refer to a full-size candy bar, like your typical Milky Way or Mars bar or whatever. (Why? I have no idea. That's just how it is.)

"Pizza" is used as both a countable and non-countable noun. "I ate pizza" means some unspecified quantity. "I ate a pizza" means you ate an entire pizza pie. The word "pizza" is rather unusual this way.

"Noodles" is countable, but we normally eat them in fairly large quantities so we rarely really count them. No one says, "I ate 47 noodles for lunch", it's just "I ate some noodles" or "I ate noodles". But it's still a countable noun and, I think, consistently used as such. We just don't give a specific count very often.

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I think you must have misunderstood something. "The sandwich" and "the pizza" are both correct, but — unlike in some languages — each refers to a specific sandwich or pizza. "The pizza" means roughly "this pizza" or "that pizza". Similarly for "the sandwich", "the hamburger", "the coffee", "the chocolate", "the noodles", etc.

What you may be thinking of is a: "a sandwich" or "a hamburger" means "one sandwich" or "one hamburger" — we can't just say "I ate sandwich" or something — whereas "pizza" alone means "some amount of pizza" (not necessarily one pizza: it can be less than one pizza, or more than one).

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When we are talking about some types of food in general we don't use an article:

  • I like pizza
  • I don't drink coffee.

When we are referring to specific instances of these foods we use the definite article:

  • I couldn't finish the pizza - it was too big.
  • The coffee I bought at lunch tasted bitter.

But the words hamburger and sandwich are different. Unlike pizza, chocolate, coffee etc. they can only refer to specific instances of that food type. They cannot be used in the singular to refer to that type of food in general. So you cannot say:

  • I like hamburger.
  • I never eat sandwich.

You have to use the plural forms.

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You can sorta-kinda use "hamburger" as a mass noun, if you're using it as a synonym for "ground beef" (aka "mince"). But while "I like hamburger" can thus be made grammatically unobjectionable, it would be an exceedingly odd statement semantically. –  Marthaª Feb 15 '12 at 0:50
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This is a tricky one, so there isn't a definitive answer.

  • Usage changes over time - witness Was the usage “Spaghetti were” ever acceptable?

  • Some foods are "countable" (eg sandwiches), some aren't (eg Irish stew).

  • Some are variable (both "We ate pizza" and "We ordered two pizzas" are valid).

  • Restaurant staff break the rules ("Chef! Two lasagnas for table six!").

  • Restaurant diners break the rules ("Waiter! - I'll have a ratatouille today, please").

The best "rule of thumb" I can suggest is that if you must pick it up in your hand, it's probably "countable". If you can pick it up, but might use cutlery/etc., it may be variable. If it's doled onto the plate in ladlesful, it's probably uncountable.

That rule is by no means universal. Two people can "Drink coffee", or "Order two coffees", so coffee is "variable" even though you can't pick it/one up without a cup.

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