Frequently in my childhood a conversation would arise at the dinner table that went something like this; "How many peas would you like?" "About sixty please". (Laughter ensues).

The question befits a countable noun such as sausages. However the correct answer is something which befits a non-countable noun such as rice. "Quite a lot", "Not very much", "A spoonful" or "Less" (rather than "Fewer"). Why is it that peas defy classification as countable or non-countable?

I've had it explained to me that the etymology of pea is a back-engineered (and originally incorrect) singular derived from "pease" which would suggest "How much peas would you like?" is a grammatically correct question.

However this doesn't explain why the same problem occurs with other small items such as sliced carrots or cornflakes.

Is it size-related? Is there a no-man's land between rice and sausages where English is simply lacking an appropriate solution?

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    I don't think the hilarity is related to countability. It's about practicality. No-one would expect someone to count out the peas they're giving someone. – Rupe Jul 29 '14 at 11:38
  • One could always ask "how many spoonfuls of peas would you like", and avoid offering a straight line. – Peter Shor Jul 29 '14 at 12:36
  • Are you perhaps being influenced by the singular noun pease, for which OED's definition 2a is an individual seed of the pea plant, Pisum sativum; a pea. In the etymology for this entry OED says By late Middle English the plural form was often identical with the singular... After the mid 17th cent. the plural (and collective) form peas becomes indistinguishable from the plural of pea. – FumbleFingers Jul 29 '14 at 12:52

The question may be "How many peas?" (countable) but the answer is expressed by quantity not count (ie, "A spoonful," as if a mass noun).

Presumably this is because although the items are theoretically countable like apples, they are practically uncountable, like sand.

  • Even if practically countable, it was not meant for them to be counted anyway. :) – Kris Jul 29 '14 at 12:17
  • So I suppose the answer is that the questioner is incorrect for treating them as countable in the first place. Not often that mum is wrong! :) – rickyzenon Jul 30 '14 at 20:08

Setting aside the question of etymology, today, pea is an English word (countable, pl. peas; also peas uncountable/mass noun.)

In a context where the reference is to an individual 'spherical green seed which is eaten as a vegetable Pisum sativum, ' (ODO) it is the countable noun.

Where the reference is to the bulk, use the mass noun peas.

Stop throwing peas at the girl! (plural of countable)

Another helping of peas, guest? (uncountable)

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    Do you have any evidence to back up the claim that peas can be an uncountable noun? – Rupe Jul 29 '14 at 12:07
  • There's an example in the answer. Pea(s) is not an exceptional case, there may be many other such. – Kris Jul 29 '14 at 12:08
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    If your last sentence is clearly an uncountable use of peas, than pickles and potatoes are also uncountable nouns. – Peter Shor Jul 29 '14 at 12:30
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    When it's mass, it's pronounced the same as peas, but it's spelled pease. That was the original term, from Latin pisum. It's cooked dried peas; what we call split-pea soup in the US. We also all know the children's rhyme: Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold, pease porridge in the pot nine days old. Some like it hot, some like it cold, some like it in the pot, nine days old. Count noun pea was back-formed from pease when peas began to be eaten green and shelled as a vegetable and the need arose for a singular. Now it's standard. – John Lawler Jul 29 '14 at 14:50
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    For comparison, try rice. Or bean. Or oats. Or Mexican Spanish, where frijoles are individual beans, while frijol is the refried bean dish. – John Lawler Jul 29 '14 at 14:55

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