I am wondering if there is a rule for using the word "food" as a count or non-count noun. In the example below, why is food singular in all the sentence except the last one? Is it because only specific "foods" out of the general category "food" are problematic?

People have different attitudes toward food. Some are adventurous and some are not. Adventurous people are willing to try new different food. There are those who are vegetarians or allergic to certain types of food. These people would have to stay away from problematic foods.


Original Post
The noun food is a member of the category mass (noncount) nouns. A mass noun represents an undifferentiated "mass" of something. Food is used as a mass noun in utterances like

I've never seen so much food in my life! Who's going to eat it all?

I've left some food for the cat in the fridge. Be sure to heat it a little before you give it to her.

The noun food is not always a mass noun, however. It is often used as a count noun:

At this year's international fair we sampled foods (kinds of food) from many more countries than last year

Many mass nouns in English can be used as count nouns. Quirk et al. state that noncount nouns may be converted to count nouns to express three ideas:

"1) "A unit of N": two coffees; two (huge) cheeses

2) "A kind of N": Some paints are more lasting than others; This is a better bread than the one I bought last

3) "An instance of N": A difficulty; small kindnesses; a miserable failure; home truths; a great injustice"*

It is common to hear people giving their orders in eating establishments using mass nouns as count nouns:

We'll have two apple pies, two mocha cheesecakes, and four iced teas

This does not mean that each diner will get a whole pie or cheesecake; each one will get a unit (a portion) of that food.

Similarly, one can say

For the new deck I need a wood (kind of wood) that won't rot in damp weather

With this principle in mind, I would like to suggest a revision of the third sentence in the passage to reflect standard English usage:

...Adventurous people are willing to try new different FOODS (kinds of food).

Rachel posted an answer to a similar question on April 13, 2003:

Yes, "fruit" can be a count noun. "A fruit" or "fruits" are often used to refer to a kind of fruit, or a species of fruit:

At this time of year, our market has a lot of wonderful tropical fruits -- mangoes, papayas,and pineapples for example.

Is an avocado a fruit or a vegetable?

Chuncan Feng posted a short comment on April 13, 2003 suggesting two noncount nouns that can be made count nouns when talking of kinds or types--food and tobacco.

The list of noncount nouns that can be made singular or plural is practically endless. I should point out that the noncount noun homework is not one of these! Homework is always a noncount noun:

i always have too much homework on weekends.

If you want to refer to a unit of homework you have to say assignment:

I can't talk right now. I have a history assignment to finish before I go to bed.

Who knows--maybe homework will some day join the ranks of noncount nouns that can be made count nouns. In the meantime, it's only a noncount noun.

Marilyn Martin

*Quirk et al., A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (Longman, 1985), Appendix I.53

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