I previously mentioned the Youtube channel It’s okay to be smart by Joe Hanson, which presents bite-sized chunks of general science, specifically his catch-phrase “Stay curious”. Another catch-phrase is “[Name/pronoun] did a science”.

In the movie The Martian (but not the novel, which I recently bought, partly to research this), astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) is stranded on Mars after his crewmates think that was killed during an emergency evacuation. He survives (obviously), then records a video outlining what he must do to survive, partly to clarify his own thoughts and partly for any future mission which might find him (dead). He concludes: “In the face of overwhelming odds, I’m faced with only one option: I’m going to have to science the shit out of this”.

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A shop at my local railway station is selling:


Paper is an example of a noun which can be used uncountably to mean the substance itself or countably to mean one item made out of it. But a paper/papers generally refers to newspapers or academic, legal, government or identity documents, or something like them. Everything is just paper. I can give you a newspaper or two, but I can’t give you a toilet paper or two – I can only give you two sheets or two rolls

Toilet papers, if they are anything, are newspapers or academic etc documents which can be read while sitting on the toilet, which is basically all of them anyway. Indeed, the toilet may be the best place for some of them.

melodious song

A colleague was involved in a cultural night. The flyer for it promised “dances, drama and melodious song”. I’ve been pondering the grammar and usage of melodious song, and have come to very few conclusions. 

Dance, drama and song can all be used uncountably and countably: we can present “dance, drama and song” or “a dance, a drama and a song” or “dances, dramas and songs” (or any combination of those – I would have preferred that the flyer was consistent in its usage). But uncountable song seems to be used less than dance or drama: I’m studying dance, ?dancing, drama, *dramaing (because drama is not a verb, therefore can’t become a gerund), ?song, singing. It also seems to resist being modified by an adjective more than dance or drama: we can present classical dance, modern dance, classical drama, modern drama, ?classical song, ?modern song.

One Facebook friend suggested that we expect songs to be melodious, so actually saying so is superfluous. Maybe so, but 20th century ‘modern classical’ composers produced a number of unmelodious songs. Another suggested that the problem is the final /s/ of melodious followed by the initial /s/ of song. I offered harmonious song as a comparison.

Google Ngrams shows:

popular~new~old~first~same~little~beautiful~sweet~following~sacred song,

a(n) new~popular~old~little~good~beautiful~sweet~single~ancient~comic song,

the same~first~old~popular~last~following~whole~new~sweet~choral song,

popular~news~old~other~many~such~patriotic~spiritual~sacred~national songs and

the old~same~popular~other~new~best~sacred~sweet~choral~national songs,

all of which suggests … something about uncountable and countable song(s) and a(n) and the, which I can’t figure out right now.

Melodious song is certainly used, but only about half as much as sacred in the first search.

If I was creating or advising about that flyer, I would probably choose or advise “dance, drama and song”. Keep it simple and keep it consistent.

The justice of scales

A few days ago, I mentioned that hadn’t seen the bathroom scales since before we moved house in early October. My wife replied that “it is in the kitchen cupboard”.

For me, scales are ‘uncountable plural’; that is, they always take are, were, these, those etc. Google Ngrams shows that the scale is/was is more common than the scales are/were. But this is complicated by the fact that there are three kinds of scales: snake/fish, weighing and music/map. Snake/fish and music/map scales are countable and therefore can be singular or plural, and’s entry for weighing scales is “scale2 noun 1. Often scales”.

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“I’m travel go home”

For the past two weekends I have been filling in for my colleague who teaches the beginner class, and it is very frustrating. Almost all of the students come from two closely related countries which speak more-or-less the same language, and spend more time speaking that language than they do English. Today, one student said he was travelling to his country for a holiday tomorrow, and I said “Safe trip” as a throwaway comment. We immediately got bogged down on the difference between travel and trip. It would be nice if one was purely a verb and the other purely a noun, but both are both, and while travel has basically the same meaning as a verb or noun, trip is entirely different as a verb. When the student used his translator, I couldn’t be sure that he wasn’t getting the stumble meaning. (Also, travel as a noun is uncountable, while trip is countable.)

He then flicked back a few pages in his notebook and said “Can I say I’m travel go home?”. I had no idea where to start with that one. The short answer is no. The only thing I could salvage from it is that I understand what he means – almost.

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“My name’s David and I like …”

Many years ago, in the first lesson of one class at high school, we did an ‘introduce yourself’ activity which consisted of saying “My name’s [name] and I like [food starting with that letter]”. The first D in the class (I can’t remember his name) said “I like duck”. The second (Debbie) said “I like dates”, which provoked a few light-hearted comments. When it was my term, I couldn’t think of any other food beginning with D. The teacher finally suggested dill pickles. Some of my classmates started calling me that as a nickname, but fortunately I changed class soon after, for unrelated reasons.

I am now teaching English again part-time, and the first lesson in the textbook was about food. In one lesson I did a similar activity in which students say “I went to the market and bought an apple, a banana etc …” through the alphabetic (vocabulary, pronunciation, countable and uncountable nouns etc). Duck was one of the items in the vocabulary list, so I was expecting the student whose turn it was to say that, but instead she said … Continue reading


I am trying to sell some old furniture through a ‘Buy, Sell, Swap’ group on Facebook. Someone in the group has advertised “furnitures” for sale. In current-day standard English, this is a plain mistake, but it may gain some usage under the influence of second-language learners and speakers. It makes sense, and there’s no doubt what people mean when they say or write it.

The more I investigated, the murkier it got. There’s a group of uncountable nouns which represent a collection of items, or more accurately there’s two groups of uncountable nouns which represent a collection of items. A flock of sheep consists of sheep (rams, ewes and lambs, a limited list), but furniture consists of tables, chairs, couches etc (a potentially unlimited list). Google Ngrams shows that a furniture appears overwhelmingly as a noun modifier of store, factory, manufacturer etc (and that its usage skyrocketed before 1890 and 1910, so I don’t know what people called it before then) and that furnitures is used just often enough for it may not to be a plain mistake. Among other things, it is used with the verbs are and were. Two of the most common collocations are furnitures thereunto and furnitures whatsoever, which suggests that it has a legal usage. Continue reading

“A glass on her head”

I wish I could draw, but I can’t. Sometimes I draw very simple stick figures and sometimes those leave my students even more confused than before.

A few days ago, my students were doing a communicative activity. The book provided two sets of drawings of six people with small difference between them, the activity being to describe each person accurately enough that their partner would understand that the drawing was different. One of the people was wearing sunglasses on her head. One student said, “She has a glass on her head”. I asked “What has she got on her head?”. She replied “A glass”. I quickly drew these stick figures:


I repeated my question and the student answered correctly. It turns out that the sunglasses were not one of the differences between the two sets of drawings. (The same often happens with “She has a long hair”.)

Glass can only mean “the substance”, and “a glass” can only mean “a drinking vessel”. But “glasses” can mean “two drinking vessels” or “spectacles”. But in this context, “She has glasses on her head” is going to be interpreted as “spectacles”. In the context of a circus performance, we’d have to say “She is balancing glasses on her head”.

Grammarbites ch 5 – Nouns

Part 1 – introduction

[when I put the whole thing in order, Nouns will come here]

Part 2 – auxiliary and modal verbs

Part 3 – regular and irregular main verbs

Part 4 – consonant clusters

I am currently wading through many explanations in grammar books and online of countable and uncountable nouns. Many sources have too many examples, many have too few. My challenge is to provide you with a good amount of representative examples, with some rhyme or reason.

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