A grain of rice and a clove of garlic: making uncountable nouns countable (1)

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by Liz Walter

You probably already know that you can use many uncountable nouns in a countable way with words such as piece or bit:

I ate a small piece of cheese.

Why don’t you add a bit of cream?

However, we can also use more interesting and specific words. Today’s post will look at how we do this with food and my next post will look at other topics such as weather and emotions.

We often use the names of containers when we talk about amounts of food. These might be items of crockery or cutlery, for example bowl, plate, cup, glass, tablespoon or teaspoon, or items of packaging such as packet, bottle, can, carton, tub or tube:

I ordered a bowl of soup.

Add a teaspoon of salt.

She ate a whole tub of ice cream.

It is also common to use words that indicate the shape of an amount of food, for instance slice, sliver, hunk, chunk, lump or slab:

The soup contained large chunks of beef.

I used a whole slab of chocolate in the dessert.

The words portion or serving indicates an amount sufficient for one person. We use mouthful for any food or drink. We also use sip, slurp, gulp and swig for amounts of liquid we swallow at one time:

There are four portions of stew in the pan.

The recipe makes four to six servings.

He ate a few mouthfuls of rice.

I only had a sip of tea.

With foods that consist of many very small parts, such as rice, sugar or salt we often use grain, while for liquids, we often use drop. Other words are more closely linked to specific liquids, for instance a dash (UK)/splash (US) of milk or a glug of oil:

Use a fork to separate the grains of rice.

I like a dash (UK)/splash (US) of milk in my tea.

Other words that are usually used with specific foods are a pinch of salt and a knob of butter:

Add a pinch of salt to the boiling water.

He fried the fish in a knob of butter.

Several words that make uncountable foods countable relate to the action you use with them. For example, we can talk about a squeeze of lemon juice, a grind of pepper, a sprinkling/dusting of icing sugar (UK)/confectioner’s sugar (US), cocoa powder, etc. and a drizzle of olive oil, honey, etc.

Give the risotto a few good grinds of pepper.

Serve the figs with a drizzle of honey.

Finally, there is a group of nouns that describe single parts of a type of food. For instance we talk about cloves of garlic, sweetcorn (UK)/corn (US) kernels, orange/grapefruit segments and coffee beans:

Chop two cloves of garlic.

The sweetcorn (UK)/corn (US) kernels add a lovely texture to the salad.

Food is such an enormous topic, there are probably many more ways of talking about amounts of it, but I hope this post has covered the main ones and helped to explain the idea of how we can use uncountable nouns in a countable way.

11 thoughts on “A grain of rice and a clove of garlic: making uncountable nouns countable (1)

  1. Mister M

    Hello teacher Liz

    Sorry, Question has nothing to do with the topic of the column ( i can’t find another way to reach you)

    My question : is there a dictionary that classify words according to parts of speech not alphabit, i mean all verbs alone from a to z then adjectives from a to z then Adverbs from a to z then etc.
    and this dictionary only mention the most used words in english language.

    Sorry for bad english i use Google translate.

    Thank you.

  2. Khalid Anis

    Topic about countable & uncountable was quite interesting.
    Responsible Liz Walter, thanks for writing so good, informative & interesting topic.

  3. Isabelle Amaya

    Hello Liz, very interesting topic indeed. Could you please expand on other countable nouns used with uncountable ones like piece of news, piece of information? I cannot think of others but I imagine there must be more. Thanks a lot!

  4. Annie

    Thank you for this delightful article. I can use some of the concepts with my English students in Johannesburg.

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