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I have run into a conundrum.

When I go to get some friends cans of beer I say:

You guys want a beer?

When I am referring to going to a bar and drinking some I say:

Let's go get some beers!

When I go to a store to buy beer I say:

I am going to get beer.

How can I work this out? My friend is a native Chinese speaker and this is the sort of plural thing that trips her up. How is this explained?

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migrated from Nov 10 '12 at 11:58

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You seem to mix countable and non-countable nouns. Beer, as category, is not countable, so it can't be plural. However, bottled beer and beer types are countable. Why didn't you post it to English@SE? – bytebuster Nov 10 '12 at 3:20
Your first two examples are explained by expectation: 1) You are getting up and expecting to return with a single beer for each person, thus singular. 2) You are heading out to a bar where you expect to have more than one beer (both due to the increased effort on your part and due to social norms), thus plural. In the third example you use "beer" as a category, not as a countable, thus singular. Semantically speaking the "beer" in 1 and 2 is different from the "beer" in 3. – acattle Nov 10 '12 at 7:27
Isn't that, there can be used plural in each of this cases? - (hence is it just about emphasize of how much are you going to drink) – Jirka Kopřiva Nov 13 '12 at 0:33

3 Answers 3

'Beer' can mean both the substance "beer" and the (standard or more arbitrary) units by which it is measured ("a beer"; "two beers").

'Beer' referring to the substance cannot be plural (or singular) (ie. it is non-countable, see comment).

But when used to mean the units by which you buy / consume the substance (eg. "we each had 3 beers last night"), 'beer' is countable. See this (Canadian) article at Ask the English Teacher and this comment in particular, for more clarity.

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The complication that beer is an alternative plural form in Canada hardly clarifies. But a good article nevertheless. To summarise, beer is a mass noun (non-count, neither singular nor plural, but looking singular and taking a singular verb). But it is countified (singular beer, plural beers outside Canada) when talking about a measure of beer (two beers, please) or a type of beer (bitter and mild beers). – Edwin Ashworth Apr 24 at 23:03

The key issue here that the answers shown above missed is why the word "beer" treated specially (as both countable noun and uncountable noun). That is, the arguments (explanations) does not seem to hold if you replace the word "beer" with "milk".

Let me rephrase my point: Why is "beers" acceptable as proper English in certain cases whereas "milks" does not seem OK? In other words, it is not acceptable to say "Let's have milks", or is it?

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Your observation is a good one. I will note, however, that to some people, both of those sound equally funny (meaning some beers and some milks). – tchrist Sep 19 at 3:27

It seems to me that beer, as a liquid, is plural and singular. Just as when it is canned, bottled or poured into a container it becomes plural. But when consumed it is referred to as beer not beers. Ex. "I have four cans of beer" or "Man did I drink a lot of beer last night". The plural form can be directly related to the container in which it is served. Stating "I'm buying all of his beers tonight" seems improper English. Kind of like saying "I'm buying all of her wines".

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Hello User 118. I've tidied up the above answer and summarised it. I agree that while 'Two beers, please' is idiomatic, 'I'm buying all his beers tonight' is stretching things. These 'serving-of-' countifications have restricted distributions. 'Two ice creams' and 'two lagers' are standard, but 'two wines' and especially 'two milks' would be rare in the UK. The 'types-of-' countifications seem less restricted: two wines I particularly like are ... / 'What is the difference between these two Japanese milks?' – Edwin Ashworth Apr 24 at 23:12
@EdwinAshworth Two ice creams isn’t standard. Sounds weird. You would have to work to set up a viable context for it. – tchrist Apr 25 at 0:21
@tchrist It is here. No it doesn't (in the UK), and no I wouldn't. From British Council Grammar Reference: countable/uncountable nouns: Many foodstuffs can be countable or uncountable. Think about the difference between ‘an ice cream’ and ‘some ice cream’ and ‘a coffee’ and ‘some coffee’. Do you have any serious evidence to back your statement? – Edwin Ashworth Apr 25 at 0:31

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