Why do we say "I love cake" but "I love cars"?

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25

Why do some nouns need to be in the plural for that structure to work, while some are ok in the singular? E.g.: I love pizza, I love beef, etc.

I always thought it was a matter of countable x uncountable, but "cakes", for example, is countable.

San Diago

Posted 2017-05-17T17:38:03.803

Reputation: 1 125

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– ColleenV – 2018-03-26T00:42:35.927

Answers

132

Often the countable and uncountable versions of an English noun will refer to different things. For example, "hamburger". If you say,

I love hamburger

it means that you enjoy the actual ground meat, in all its various uses. On the other hand,

I love hamburgers

means you like the specific use of ground beef in a hamburger, with the bun, lettuce, pickles, tomato, etc. You can also say:

I love a good hamburger

to refer to the specific object, with the relevant qualifiers.

In a similar way:

I love chicken (the meat)
I love chickens (the animal)

I love television (the programs on television)
I love televisions (the electronic device)

These distinctions seem idiomatic and can only be learned by exposure, memorization, and practice.

However (in general) when a noun's countable form and uncountable form both refer to (more or less) the same thing, it seems you use the uncountable form to refer to the generic or overarching concept, and you use the countable form to refer to specific instances or examples of that thing. With cake:

I love cake (cake in general)
I love the cakes Mary served at her party (those specific cakes)

I love coffee (coffee in general)
I love the coffees from Brazil (the various varieties of coffee from Brazil)

Note also a similar use when talking about wishes or desires:

I'd love some cake.
I'd love a cake.

As with anything in English, there may be exceptions.

Andrew

Posted 2017-05-17T17:38:03.803

Reputation: 85 521

53+1 I do see a subtle difference between *I love cake* and *I love cakes*. The first means I love to eat the food known as cake whereas the second sounds more like it is about the concept of individual cakes—an appreciation for their beauty, and the effort of the baker that they represent, for example. – 1006a – 2017-05-18T01:35:47.613

24+1 "I love cake" means I love the food itself, the cake material. "I love cakes" means I love all of what makes up a cake: the frosting, the outside, the roundness, etc. – daboross – 2017-05-18T03:15:16.953

9I've never heard 'I love hamburger' used in the same way as 'I love chicken/beef/etc'. I don't think it can be used in the same way. – pyro – 2017-05-18T09:03:37.050

6@Pyro In the US, it's a regional thing - some places you go to the store for a pound of hamburger, others for a pound of ground beef. – T.J.L. – 2017-05-18T13:14:25.660

1@pyro I can't imagine personally saying "I love hamburger" but the meaning is immediately obvious and the phrase perfectly natural. If unclear, consider the quirky difference between "i'm going to the store for a pound of hamburger" and "I'm going to the store for a pound of hamburgers". Even if you would prefer to use "ground beef", you can still understand what the speaker intends to buy. – Andrew – 2017-05-18T13:34:46.497

12As someone who married a vegetarian, I can assure you I've said "I love hamburger" before. – corsiKa – 2017-05-18T13:43:04.720

4@Andrew Maybe this is genuinely a UK/US difference, but I would honestly not know you were speaking about ground meat vs a whole hamburger (buns, etc) if someone used those two sentences. I would assume it was a whole hamburger. – pyro – 2017-05-18T14:10:25.597

1@pyro Perhaps the hamburger (flat lump of meatball) vs. hamburger (flat lump of meatball in flat lump of bread with optional other food) distinction is similar to the hot dog (sausage) vs. hot dog (sausage in long sliced lump of bread with optional sauce) distinction. – wizzwizz4 – 2017-05-18T19:36:14.427

2Besides which... the cake is a lie. – nijineko – 2017-05-18T19:57:54.317

@pyro I can imagine saying something like "I love hamburger—it's cheap and filling and versatile. I especially like it as hamburgers or in tacos. Or lasagna sauce! Can't forget lasagna." Hmm, now I'm hungry. – 1006a – 2017-05-18T20:48:31.843

3My favorite version of this is when my Chinese friend kept saying his son "loves cat", even a few times after I clarified that "I love cat" implies you like eating cat meat. – Paul – 2017-05-19T07:27:49.973

1Most couples in Hamburg love a Hamburger. – RedGrittyBrick – 2017-05-19T09:54:32.407

@pyro I like hamburger on pizza. – bubbleking – 2017-05-19T20:29:21.520

Nice answer, but it doesn't address the plural form as a mode of generalization, where the plural refers to the "overarching" idea. e.g. I love cars or I love murder mysteries – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2017-05-20T18:21:06.130

@pyro I was with you in the "I love hamburger" thing, but it seems that you, me, and all the other upvoters were wrong. Moral of the story: No matter how "wrong" or "akward" something sounds, there is somewhere in the planet where people actually speak like that. – xDaizu – 2017-05-22T14:35:45.550

@xDaizu it's the difference between UK English and American English. There's many other examples. – Danny Bullis – 2017-09-07T18:45:50.893

18

The general rule (which I am coming up with as I write) is this:

In referring to a general state of affairs, when nouns are countable and uncountable (pizza, bread, coffee, etc.), the uncountable noun usually will be used. The countable one is used for a specific quantity.

"I love pizza" but "Today I ate three small pizzas".

Love is a splendid thing. I have had three loves in my life.

It's that simple.

Lambie

Posted 2017-05-17T17:38:03.803

Reputation: 26 929

1Thanks, but I'm not sure I understand it. For example, wouldn't "car" be both countable and uncountable? But we say "I love cars", and not "I love car." Same thing with "lamp", "carpet" and most other countable common nouns I can think of. – San Diago – 2017-05-17T19:28:30.403

7No, cars is always countable as a noun. You need to work on the countable/uncountable idea. It's very similar to Spanish. – Lambie – 2017-05-17T20:12:51.703

8@SanDiago - Maybe it would help to understand if we called non-count nouns by their other name: mass nouns. "Car" is always countable because cars are always distinct things. But most things that are non-count are things that can be a general mass: flour, sand, wood, food, etc. – stangdon – 2017-05-17T22:15:09.763

9A criterion for uncountable things (or "matter") is that a part retains the nature of the whole. A piece of a car is not a car - and you can't drive it. A piece of a cake is still a cake in that you can eat it exactly as you can eat the whole cake. – Titou – 2017-05-18T10:28:25.070

You ate three pizzas in one day? – Jacques – 2017-05-18T10:30:50.697

@JaccoAmersfoort: Three small pizzas isn't as much as it sounds like. :) – cHao – 2017-05-18T14:44:25.957

3@Titou: That's often true, but it's not a perfect criterion. For example, we typically say "I love mashed potatoes" rather than "I loved mashed potato". – ruakh – 2017-05-19T22:11:31.847

1@ruakh I say "I love mashed potato" regularly. To my ear it would be weird to say mashed potatoes in that context. – Glen_b – 2017-05-22T00:25:26.097

3@Glen_b: You're not alone in that, but you're definitely in the minority. – ruakh – 2017-05-22T03:13:59.900

@ruakh I suspect its frequency varies regionally. – Glen_b – 2017-05-22T03:50:12.870

2

@Glen_b: I suspect you're right, but on average, "mashed potatoes" is far more common than "mashed potato": see e.g. https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=mashed+potato%2Cmashed+potatoes. Regardless, even if there were more "mashed potato" speakers than "mashed potatoes" speakers, that wouldn't affect my point: if Titou's criterion were a perfect one, then there would be no "mashed potatoes" speakers.

– ruakh – 2017-05-22T04:08:27.900

@ruakh thanks for pointing this. I would argue that it does not invalidate my argument as in "mashed potatoes", "mashed" is not semantically an adjective but a part of the compound noun, as it qualifies the result and not the input potatoes. In other words, once potatoes are mashed they are no longer potatoes (at least in form). In other languages, there is a noun that specifically designates the matter obtained (ex. "purée" in French). Thus the compound "mashed potatoes" is invariably plural - or let'say that variation is a question of regional standards – Titou – 2017-05-23T14:48:58.790

... so I claim that "mashed potatoes" is the exception that confirms the rule. – Titou – 2017-05-23T14:52:07.117

7

Note that "I love cakes" sounds entirely natural to me, though it has a different nuance.

Cake is the uncountable term for the stuff cakes are made of, so saying you love cake implies that you love the stuff cakes are made of. This is what you're likely to say if you're talking about them as food.

Saying you love cakes implies that you love the cakes themselves, as whole things. This suggests that the nature of a cake as an individual item, perhaps the presentation or the associated experience, factors into your enjoyment.

With "I love cars", you're talking about whole cars. Saying "I love car" sounds really odd because cars aren't generally useful or talked about outside of their whole forms. The closest you might find is a mechanic saying "I love car parts".

Veedrac

Posted 2017-05-17T17:38:03.803

Reputation: 179

2No, I love car is weird just like I love berry is weird or any other number of countables. – Lambie – 2017-05-19T12:57:58.760

1@Lambie You say no, but you seem to be agreeing with what I wrote. – Veedrac – 2017-05-19T13:18:33.150

I love berry is fine if you're construing berry appropriately – something which is rather less likely with car :-) – snailplane – 2017-05-20T12:02:03.377

2

Incidentally, cake is one of those strange words.

I love cake. → I love pieces of large cake.

I love cakes. → I love whole individually sized cakes.

Individual cakes are rare these days except for cupcakes; but we recall the word because of the stock phrase "selling like hotcakes", where "hotcakes" doesn't mean "hot cakes" anymore but "pancakes".

Joshua

Posted 2017-05-17T17:38:03.803

Reputation: 158

*I love pieces of large cake*? That is very odd. *I love large pieces of cake*, however, is not. – Lambie – 2017-05-21T15:25:06.217

@Lambie: you're right large would normally not be there. I stuck the word in to be clear as to the meaning rather than the saying. – Joshua – 2017-05-22T00:22:34.333

1

You're on the right track with thinking of it as countable or uncountable. Consider the following difference:

I love to eat pizza.

I love to eat pizzas.

The first specifies that enjoy eating an uncountable amount of pizza. In this case, it means a portion of a whole.

The second sentence implies that I enjoy consuming multiple pizzas (in one sitting). So in general, you use the plural form when talking about an amount that could be more than one.

Here's another example:

I own a red car.

I love blue cars, too.

I would love to own a blue car.

I would love to own blue cars.

In the first sentence, I am specifying that I own (at least) one red car, so I use the singular.

In the second, I'm talking about every blue car, so I use the plural.

In the third sentence, I want to own one blue car, so I use the singular.

In the last example, I want to own multiple blue cars, so I use the plural.

Kys

Posted 2017-05-17T17:38:03.803

Reputation: 189

1

A piece of cake or pizza can still be enjoyed by the average eater (and it might be the preferred form), while a piece of car is only enjoyable to those with niche interests (car fixing, collecting, crafts, recycling) ...

rackandboneman

Posted 2017-05-17T17:38:03.803

Reputation: 121

1

Interestingly, “I love cupcakes.” uses the countable form. Similar your initial note, I might ask for “some cake” or “a [size-indication] piece of cake.”

So I think what I love naturally uses the same form as what I refer to when I eat it.

JDługosz

Posted 2017-05-17T17:38:03.803

Reputation: 425

1

Simple version of what has been said - still may be useful.

When a term "xxx" may refer in common use to both a substance or to items made from that substance, then singlar or plural versions may apply eg

  • "I like cake" - I like the substance

  • "I like cakes" - I like the items

or

  • I especially like crottled greep brain. <- the material

  • I especially like crottled greep brains. <- the whole brains

When a term "xxx" may refer in common use only to items and not the parts or materials that they are made from then only the singlar version applies eg

  • I like aeroplanes

but not

  • I like aeroplane

When a term "xxx" (possibly qualified) may refer in common use solely to a material or substance used to form an item then

  • only the singular applies when the reference is to xxx as a material

    • I like peach juice
      (and never "peach juices" except in extremely niche situations.)

    • Contrived exception: "Of all the drinks in your collection I liked the various peach juices."

Russell McMahon

Posted 2017-05-17T17:38:03.803

Reputation: 394

0

I love cake: when used like this, you're referring to an uncountable amount of cake (or, in this case: the very nature of cake itself). In that sense, you could say: I ate **much** cake because I love cake.

On the other hand, in I love hamburgers, you're referring to a countable number of hamburgers. Analogously to the above, you might say: I ate **many** hamburgers because I love hamburgers.

René Nyffenegger

Posted 2017-05-17T17:38:03.803

Reputation: 117

1"I ate much cake" sounds ungrammatical to me, but if you change it to "I ate too much cake vs "I ate too many hamburgers" it works. Native British English speaker, south-eastern dialect. – Peter Taylor – 2017-05-20T15:58:54.137

1I love pieces of large cake??? I love large pieces of cake. Please. And individually sized cakes are usually called cupcakes. – Lambie – 2017-05-20T16:08:45.513

-1. The plural is also a mode of generalization. I love cars means something like "I love everything about cars, how they look, how they're designed, their engines, their exhaust manifolds, their interiors, their ...)". – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2017-05-20T18:17:46.787

-3

Excellent question. Think about adding an infinitive into the sentence and it might make more sense:

I love *to eat* cake.
I love *to drive* cars.
I love *to eat* apples.

As to why, I don't have a concrete answer as to why it is. It might come to me though.

Adam Blomeke

Posted 2017-05-17T17:38:03.803

Reputation: 124

5Isn't it possible to say, "I love cakes."? I think this is the countable noun grammar rule. I love duck. That means I love to eat duck, while "I love ducks." means I love the animals. – WRX – 2017-05-17T17:59:32.303

3Note that "to eat cake" isn't a "prepositional phrase". That to is an infinitive marker, not a preposition. Also note that there's nothing wrong with *I love to eat cakes* (or *I love to eat duck* and *I love to feed ducks*, come to that). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2017-05-17T18:06:18.610

2@Willow - What you said about duck vs ducks is true, but what about when we change ducks to almonds? "I love almonds" means I love to eat almonds, but "I love almond" means I love the flavor of almond. This is a tough nut to crack. P.S. This could somehow be related to serving size, too. We say "I love cake, I love pizza, I love pie, I love pineapple," but we often eat part of the whole when it comes to those foods. Yet when the items are more personal-sized, we often use the plural (e.g., "I love cupcakes, I love meatballs, I love plums"). Don't ask me to explain "I love bread." – J.R. – 2017-05-17T18:14:33.537

Of course you can say I love to eat cakes but a native English speaker would not confuse that with the general idea of I love to eat cake. General statements with nouns that are countable and uncountable generally take the uncountable form> I love to drink coffee. But; Today I drank three coffees. – Lambie – 2017-05-17T18:18:17.233

Might it relate to the aspect of the thing that you like? I mean "I love duck" is accurate if you mean to say, "I love to eat duck." If you love the animals as pets, you would say, "I love ducks." – Adam Blomeke – 2017-05-17T18:21:12.017

4@Lambie: I doubt many native English speakers would perceive any semantic difference between I love to eat cake and I love to eat cakes (I certainly don't). But we'd all definitely distinguish between I don't like duck and I don't like ducks. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2017-05-17T18:23:21.217

1@Lambie: Are you sure you're a native speaker? Plenty of people say things like I don't much like cakes - it's hardly a useful litmus test for good command of the language. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2017-05-17T18:30:59.603

Also: I love to eat cake, but I love to bake cakes. – thumbtackthief – 2017-05-17T19:30:19.893

3Could the difference of opinion between @Lambie and Fumblefingers be related to what things get called "cake" in different parts of the world? I would not say "I like cakes" without additional context, but where I live (Pacific Northwest), cakes are ALWAYS sized for multiple people. Single-serving "cakes" are called cupcakes here, and we would never say (for instance) "I have a dozen cakes in the oven. On the Great British Baking Show, people did refer to their cupcakes as "cakes," though. I could imagine them saying "I like cakes." – Adam – 2017-05-17T20:30:15.997

1

@Lambie "no one goes around saying; I like cakes". Maybe you should do a Google search on "I like cakes" (include the quote marks!) before you make that assertion. For example Oxford University Press disagrees with you in its English Language Teaching material online: https://elt.oup.com/student/familyandfriends/starter/stories/ff_level0_story_09?cc=nl&selLanguage=nl

– alephzero – 2017-05-17T22:00:11.660

@FumbleFingers I distinctly remember retorting to your question about being a native speaker. I even saw that my answer actually was posted. Yes, I am a dyed-in-the-wool native speaker. Even a waspy native speaker. How 'bout them apples? Now, I come back to this question and see it has vamoosed. No, *I don't much like cakes* is not a usual idiomatic way of making a general statement about cake. That does not mean it is incorrect grammar. *It is correct grammar. But it would have to apply to a very specific context*. – Lambie – 2017-05-19T13:40:33.920

@Lambie: I imagine the mods tidied away some earlier comments here. There is some evidence that Americans are less likely to use plural *I like cakes* than Brits (in the AmE corpus there, only about 25% are plural, but they're about equal in the BrE corpus). But I hear/read AmE as well as BrE, and I don't think the difference is as extreme as you would have it.

– FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2017-05-19T16:09:52.493