The word "shop" seems to behave like a non-count noun in phrases like "set up shop", "shut up shop" and "close up shop". There's no article ("a"), no plural ending ("-s"). Dictionaries, such as Oxford and Merriam-Webster only list count usages and singular usages (as in "the shop"), so this idiomatic usage of the word "shop" appears to be very unique to these phrases, because the word doesn't seem to have common non-idiomatic non-count usages at all. In comparison, take the word "business", which has both common non-idiomatic non-count usages ("get down to business", "bad for business") and count usages ("small businesses").

So why does the word "shop" have this non-count usage in the phrases above? Etymologically or historically, was there any point at which "shop" meant "business", but such a non-count usage only survived in the idioms, while only the count usages survive elsewhere?

  • 3
    Usages, not nouns, are best described as count or non-count. Thus 'coffee' in 'My favourite drink has to be coffee' is a non-count usage, whereas 'The two principal coffees (= types/species of coffee) are arabica and robusta' and 'Three coffees (= mugs etc of coffee) please' (or 'One tea, please') are count usages. // This is certainly not a count usage, though I'd prefer to analyse 'set up shop' as an idiom, or at least a set phrase, without analysing further. Compare 'weigh anchor' and 'break camp'. Related idioms / set phrases involving 'shop' are talk shop, play shop, all over the shop. Commented May 27, 2019 at 12:36
  • For non-count nouns like "coffee" and "beer", dictionaries tend to list count uses as "a cup/glass of coffee/beer" to convey individual units, portions or pieces as opposed to substance. Whereas "shops" are generally individual units rather than a "substance". Maybe "shop" was once used as an abstract concept, like "work" or something, and that use stuck in these phrases? Commented May 27, 2019 at 12:56
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    The question "In English, why does ...?" is frequently unanswerable, other than to say, "Because." As an aside, Merriam-Webster includes two examples of another non-count usage: I am taking shop this semester. / I made a table in shop. NB "very unique" is allowable, but grading an absolute will invite argument. :-) Commented May 27, 2019 at 13:01
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    I'm sure the usages are related. I would interpret shop in "set up shop" as meaning business (although the idiom is also used metaphorically), but I have no doubt it may in the past have been broader and included manufacturing/trades. The term shop steward is still understood in Aust and UK as meaning trade union representative. Commented May 27, 2019 at 13:44
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    @EdwinAshworth - You wouldn't (in the US, at least) say "set up office".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 28, 2019 at 1:35

2 Answers 2


Merriam-Webster provides a dictionary definition for this phrase under its definition of set up (search for "set up shop"):

set up shop
: to start a business or activity in a particular place

As a set phrase (or idiom), it's an expression that isn't defined by any of its individual components, so analyzing the syntactical role of shop doesn't work well in this specific instance.

It's possible to break with the idiom and say that you're going to set up a shop or set up the shop, but that would be in relation to a specific, singular, situation, and it wouldn't have the same meaning as the phrase itself.

  • "As a set phrase (or idiom), it's an expression that isn't defined by any of its individual components" Sure, but I hoped to find the reason behind this usage, hence the "etymology" tag. I guess this is one of those things that you just accept without questions. Commented May 28, 2019 at 3:17
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    @Vun-Hugh Vaw It probably derives from something like 'Zeke set up his shop in ...' x 100000 with the 'his' being dropped at some indeterminate point (or rather over a period) in history. Many idioms (especially those of the slight-departure-from-standard-grammar variety) resist etymological analysis. Commented May 28, 2019 at 16:50

This is not an authoritative answer--which would have to be blimey, I don't have the foggiest--but a barely educated guess.

English shop has a cognate in Low-German Schuppen, "shed", think tool-shed, work-shop; cp. Bude "abode, house, building; (coll.) construction work company". This is homophone with Schuppen "fish schales", originally a rare kind of uncountable pluraletantum, if I read that correctly (thus die Schuppe would be a back formation by analogy). I haven't seen these related by the root, but if I were pressed to find a connection, I'd say that roof, cover is the primary symbolism for building ("under my roof, under my table") and that fish scales are significantly reminiscent of roof-tiles. So, if shop was ever understood as a non-count noun, that must have been a while back, perhaps in an isolated dialect. It's odd at least insofar the modern genus is maskulin, der Schuppen, while -en usually implies die (plural noun) or das (nominalized verb).

Incidentally, Frisian was isolated for a long time, though I wouldn't take that alone as an argument. Rather compare shovel, Ger. Schaufel, also Schippe. Again there's something about the form. Comparing Scheibe, Schicht, Schindel or Schiefer would maybe go a bit too far though.

There's also what looks like a verb schoppen, chiefly in the noun Frühschoppen "early bar opening hours, a drink in the morning", and now it becomes uncertain--if it wasn't before. A Schoppen is a measure of liquid, half a pint, related to Fr. chopin, and eventually related to schöpfen, scoop. The problem is that Schöpfer "creator, god" draws the attention of this word. This in turn may relate to schaffen "to work, succeed, create, scape", -schaft "-scape, -ship, -hood" (Landschaft, Herrschaft, Gemeinshaft, Nachbarschaft ...). There' are Schöffel, Chef, Schaffner, Schäfer, that relate more or less. Geschäft means "business", geschäftig "busy".

There's also shaft, that gives me the peculiar image of a shop-keep opening the window lid (the shop?), proping it up with a shaft; Alternatively pulling the blinders aside (Gardinen is another pluraletantum). Cp. Schaufenster ("shop front", literally "viewing window" or "show window"), Schaubude "fare establishment", Ger. Schotten, Luken, Klüsen (closures in windows or ship-pipe-works), and very significantly Laden "shop", Fenster-Laden "window lid" (those on the outside; another unusual maskulin -en noun); also see En. ladle, Ger. Schub-lade "drawer" (as if a lid that is shoved), laden "to load", and perhaps Umschlagplatz "market?", umschlagen "to flip, to swap", Klappe "lid, that which flips and clips", verklappen "to distribute [waste]", market, probably via Etruscan merx, in my humble opinion related to PIE *mey- "to change". Which Laden was first, and how it relates to shop I can't say, but it looks like a loaded semantic correspondance.

PS: The image of a shop-front propped up like that of any fast food truck came when I searched for scappa--pretty much into the blue--which is Italian and relates to escape, which has an oddly uncertain etymology (to cloak, really?). This reminded me of fire-escape, ancient Anatolian buildings with the entry through the roof, and thus outlets over fire places in all kinds of buildings, thus window. shaft is an after thought.

  • Can't believe the upvote for that. If I have to do the nagging myself: DWDS mentions roof covering in relation to Schuppen, but with straw bundles, "(s)keup-, *skeub(h)- ‘Büschel, Schopf, Quaste’". *scales is indeed explained as something that flips over/off/up; Fisch-Schuppe is instead linked to schaben "scrape, shave, e.g. to clean fish", *skā̌b(h)-. Now it's obvious that "bushels of straw" could semantically derive of a verb c.a. "to cut", as much as a degree of measure would. However, I was implying a Germanic innovation, so in sum there is disagreement.
    – vectory
    Commented Jun 25, 2019 at 16:42
  • Synchronic grammar gives an easier explanation. Shop can be an abstract noun without a verb form--shopping is marked differently--that needs auxhilliaries, or it denotes the actual place, eg all over the shop--while clean up [the] shop is indecicive for me. Similarly -ness, biznes (business) is clearly marked. The diff is like for experience ~ experiences, "to have _ experience" ~ "to have had [\have been at] an experience". ... Noteworthy, cp. scope, after-all I indicated "windows", which but may be purely random coincidence. It fell like scales from his eyes, LOL.
    – vectory
    Commented Jun 25, 2019 at 17:04

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