Thursday, October 3, 2013

Do you order "beers"?

photo: cans & bottles of beer on the shelf
Why do people ask for "beers" when the word "beer" is a noncountable noun? 
Do you stop by the corner store on your way home sometimes and grab "a couple of beers"? In the morning, do you walk into a coffee shop close to work or school and grab "a coffee"? If you've recently studied countable and noncountable nouns, you've learned that neither "beer" nor "coffee" can be counted and, therefore, should not be in the plural or have an indefinite article (a/an) in front of them. However, if this is a grammatical rule, why do so many native speakers break it? You've probably heard your American friends ask the waiter for "five waters." 
BREAK THE RULE - not follow it

Well, here's the skinny on this. When people ask for "two beers," what they mean is "two bottles or two glasses of beer"; when they ask for "a water" or "a coffee," they mean "a bottle of water" or "a cup of coffee." You're simply hearing a shortened version of a longer phrase. 
THE SKINNY - the information you need (slang)

Sometimes, you'll hear plural forms of noncount nouns to mean "kinds of." For example, when people say fruits, meats, or cheeses, they usually mean "kinds of fruit, meat, or cheese." It's possible to say, "That supermarket has a variety of cheeses on display," or "The fruits at the farmer's market were all on sale." However, if you're not referring to many kinds, keep these nouns noncountable and singular. "Would you like some fruit?" "Did you buy any meat?"

Other nouns are not as clear-cut or even easy to explain. "Sky" or "sea," for example, are sometimes used in the plural to be poetic or to talk about the sky or the sea not as one unit, but as a changing mass through time or space. "We'll see cloudy skies for tomorrow." "They sailed through rough seas." "She adored the beautiful clear blue skies of Antigua." In addition, some noncount nouns are used in the singular but not in the plural. You've probably heard someone talk about the importance of "a good education." However, we never use this noncount noun in the plural. 
CLEAR-CUT - clear with no contradictions or inconsistencies

As you can see and know by now, English has plenty of nuances, with rules that have plenty of exceptions. However, if you continue to expose yourself to the language, you'll be less intimidated by these subtle differences; you'll eventually learn to be comfortable with them and use them as you notice them used by everyone around you. If you keep working at it, your language will simply go with the flow and sound natural.
NUANCE - a small difference from the norm
SUBTLE - a slight characteristic or feature that's barely detectable

As for ordering drinks, you can, of course, say "three bottles of beer," but feel free to say "three beers." After all, this is what everyone says. You can also be specific and say, "Three Heinekins, please," or "I'll have a Corona," and that would be grammatically perfect. Bottoms up!

-- Joe Yu, ESL instructor


  1. Interesting point!. When ordering, such as "two white wines" it is perfectly understood we are referring to two classes of white wine. We also say "two cokes". However, we would never say "two milks" because that is a pretty uncommon restaurant order.

  2. A good point, Barbara. We do tend to do this a lot in restaurants.