It may sound like a silly question but I am a bit confused about the usage/meaning of paper towel. According to the dictionary, a paper towel is ONE sheet of paper. So if you want to refer to a whole roll you would say "paper towels"? I cannot understand why it makes sense to use it in the following ways:

  • a piece of paper towel (is this still a sheet?, an alternate way to say just "paper towel"?)
  • From a series (TAAHM): Q: Do you know where your uncle keeps the paper towels? A: I think there IS some up there. (Why is he using IS when he is referring to paper towelS?).

Thanks for any help.

  • 3
    In informal speech, it's not uncommon to misuse is after there, because there are is harder to pronounce.
    – Barmar
    Jul 7, 2018 at 20:26
  • 2
    It's an extremely common grammatical error. People very often say "there is" when they should say "there are," because they mistakenly think "there" is the subject and is singular, not realizing that "there" isn't a subject but a pronoun being used as a device to introduce a clause with another subject, a plural subject, where the verb has no complement. That misconception comes from "there" appearing before the verb like a subject would.
    – Billy
    Jul 7, 2018 at 21:47

2 Answers 2


In Britain, I don't know about elsewhere, we mostly call the whole thing a "kitchen roll" (note spelling). It is a roll of paper, perforated to enable one or more sheets to be torn off at a time. These may be called 'towels' (countable), and the paper itself can be called 'kitchen towel' (a non-count or mass noun).

Kitchen towel

  • In terms of the OPs question, though, we sometimes (in the UK) use 'paper towel' or 'kitchen roll' as mass nouns which would lead to conversations like "Where's the kitchen roll?" "There's some on top of the cupboard". However if asked "Where are the paper towels?" most of us would say "There are some on top of the cupboard". We would tend to match the response to the question, but somtimes get it wrong. Just like the person quoted by the OP.
    – BoldBen
    Oct 7, 2018 at 4:54
  • @BoldBen In our house we call them "kitchen rolls", and a torn off section "a piece of kitchen paper". We never call them "towels", but then in Britain the word "towel" is mostly reserved for things on which humans dry themselves, their hands etc. Americans have "dish towels" (for drying crockery etc), which we call "dish cloths". The paper ones in public loos are called "paper towels".
    – WS2
    Jan 5, 2019 at 23:48
  • @WS2 In our house we call them "kitchen rolls" as well, but some people I know call the sheets "kitchen towels" occasionally. Not only that but paper towels (that is paper items intended for drying hands) sometimes come in rolls so you get the same question of what to call the individual sheets.
    – BoldBen
    Jan 7, 2019 at 20:52

This is an example of synecdoche, where a part of something is used to represent the whole.

A "paper towel" in the strictest sense is the piece of absorbent paper that you tear off a perforated roll of absorbent paper. However, the term paper towel can be used for the roll itself, a package of rolls wrapped in plastic, or a whole shipping container full of packages, e.g.

  • Please pick up paper towel on your way home.
  • It's on sale. Paper towel came in on their truck last night.
  • (at the checkout prior to scanning). I've got two paper towels here, and three of the toilet papers on the lower rack (of the shopping cart).
  • I just spilled half my cup of coffee. Hand me the paper towel, would you?

This is usage from Canada and the U.S. coasts.

  • 1
    As for Global Charm's examples, I would suggest "Please pick up some [rolls of] paper towels on your way home", and "Paper towels came in on their truck last night", and "I've got two rolls of paper towels here, and three rolls of toilet paper", and "Hand me a paper towel, would you?"
    – tautophile
    Jul 8, 2018 at 1:42
  • 3
    I've spent time in all 50 states and never heard it used this way. I have never heard paper towel used in a mass sense, and would probably go with towelage if forced to come up with something.
    – Phil Sweet
    Sep 6, 2018 at 21:39
  • Paper toweling also comes in single sheets, folded to ease taking one at a time from a dispenser.
    – Theresa
    Sep 6, 2018 at 22:53
  • In Britain the word "towel" is almost never used outside of the bathroom - unless it is a cloth towel that you keep in the kitchen for people to dry their hands on. "Towel" always means something for drying the human body. So "paper towel" would usually imply something dispensed in a public lavatory. Anything used for drying utensils, or for wiping surfaces, we do not call a "towel".
    – WS2
    Jan 5, 2019 at 23:57
  • I'm sorry WS2 - but we use teatowels to dry the dishes. My husband (who is posher than I am) calls them 'drying up cloths'. They are usually cotton or linen. If I use one to wipe a surface, I do it when no-one is looking. Also very useful doubled up, as oven gloves. Often the object closest to hand in the kitchen, and therefore I also break hygiene rules and dry my fingers on one (that, or on my jeans.) Also good for wiping greasy fingers Jul 9, 2019 at 13:40

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