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Why can we say:

  • I like pie best.
  • I like pies best.

but we can only say:

  • I like sandwiches best?

My experience tells me that "pie" can either be sort of a generic concept or a specific thing. Yet "sandwich" is always a specific thing. Why? Is there some sort of general rule on which nouns are like "pie" and which are like "sandwich"?

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    It is possibly because the noun pie can be both countable and uncountable, whereas sandwich is always countable. – Mick Dec 11 '16 at 11:29
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    @Mick thank you. You have given me the terminology, but what is it that allows pie to be uncountable? – RichF Dec 11 '16 at 11:58
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    You can buy (and eat) either a whole pie or part of a pie (some pie). However, sandwiches are normally sold (and eaten) as individual units (although you can say "would you like some of my sandwich?") – Mick Dec 11 '16 at 12:01
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    The only thing "that allows pie to be uncountable" (and sandwiches to be countable) is that is how native speakers use the two words. And this usage can change over time. For centuries toast was countable; now it is not countable, in standard usage. There is nothing inherent in either 'pie' or 'sandwich' that makes one countable and the other not. In fact, if someone said You have sandwich on your face I would find that fully comprehensible. – Alan Carmack Dec 11 '16 at 18:56
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    Food words, such as tomato and egg can be countable or not countable. And one can say either I like tomatoes or I like tomato. The same with egg. One could argue that pie fits this category while sandwich does not: I'd like to see that argument. I've already shown that sandwich used as a noncount noun results in a comprehensible sentence, and there's no reason why we can't say I like sandwich other than "We don't." – Alan Carmack Dec 11 '16 at 19:02
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Building off of @aparente001's answer, I'd argue it has to do with divisibility (which is related to countability).

For example, cake and pie work well with your example I like pie/cake best. Sandwich, on the other hand, doesn't work quite as well. Typically, one would say half a sandwich, or a part of a sandwich when speaking of dividing it.

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Having thought about your interesting question, I would say it is related to how sandwiches are prepared. I tried to list some more words like "sandwich", and here's what I came up with:

cookie, biscuit, roll, bun, crescent, hot dog, pancake, cupcake, crepe

Think about how you would make these. I have made all of them except for the hot dog, and even there I can imagine it, because I had a friend who had worked as a traveling pork butcher in rural Mexico, and she described the sausage making process to me in detail.

When you make biscuits (the U.S. kind, not the British kind), you roll out the dough and use a floured biscuit cutter or an upside down teacup to cut out a bunch of round shapes. How many biscuits can you get out of one rolled out piece of dough? It's necessarily a discreet number. How many biscuits can you fit comfortably on one baking sheet? When you are making biscuits, you think about this. You think about the array you are making. Maybe you make alternating rows of four and then five biscuits per row. Five of these rows give you 23 biscuits. You compare that against what the recipe said -- "yields two dozen biscuits" -- and you feel reassured that you rolled the dough out to the right thickness.

I could go through a similar description with cookies, about how you use the two spoons, and so on. And to make crescents, you roll out a circle and use a knife to cut it into eight wedges, and then you roll each one up and give it a curved shape. By now you are hopefully motivated to go put on your apron, preheat your oven and open up your Joy of Cooking.

  • I think I follow your case on what makes these food items countable. What would really help non-native speakers is a rule to identify food items (or nouns in general) which can also be uncountable. Then there is the third case of only-uncountable items like water and bread. – RichF Dec 11 '16 at 23:43
  • I'm sorry, Rich, I didn't invent English. All I can do is try to find some patterns and hope that they help people speak it more comfortably. I do sympathize with your frustration, though. // What I'm saying about pancakes, etc., is that they may not be uncountable because of the way you make them. // You could ask a separate question about how to decide if a noun is uncountable (like water). I suspect it's already been dealt with. If you can't find a good question and answer for that, ask, and maybe someone will help you find a good duplicate. – aparente001 Dec 11 '16 at 23:51
  • Darn, we gotta find that guy and make him fix the plans. 🙃 // I think the pure uncountable nouns would be relatively easy to explain to non-natives. The tricky ones are like pie, which can be either. // I like your style of indicating carriage returns in these comments! – RichF Dec 12 '16 at 0:06
  • That brings us back to toast, which is used as a mass noun in everyday English. – Arm the good guys in America Dec 20 '16 at 18:10
  • @Clare - My rule of thumb works for toast, too. (Which is not to say there won't be some exceptions to my rule of thumb somewhere along the way.) When you make toast, you open the package of bread, or the breadbox, if you're old-fashioned, and you pull out one piece of sliced bread, or you slice yourself a piece. Then you put it in the toaster, butter it in the U.S. or put it in the toast rack to get cold in the U.K. (do people still do that in the UK?), etc. From start to end, you are working with a discreet piece of bread or toast. Do you see how different that is from making rolls... – aparente001 Dec 20 '16 at 19:55
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The answer for this can probably be traced back using etymology. The word Sandwich, as many whimsical linguists know, derives from the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, who liked to eat foods wedged between slices of bread. The word pie, on the other hand, comes from a long literary line of linguistic life, and can likely be traced back to the Medieval word for magpie, which in turn can be followed all the way back to the Proto-Indo-European word (s)peik. The same is true for many other pseudo-pastry products like pastry itself and cake, both of which are likely from PIE. Therefore, you can see that sandwich is an outlier in the sense that it was named after a person. Since it is different from other words in this manner, it makes sense that grammatically it would differ as well. It's awesome how all facets of linguistics connect together like this!

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