Mind your language

Why we can’t count toast

7 March 2020

9:00 AM

7 March 2020

9:00 AM

‘Somebody loves me,’ said my husband, waving a copy of The Spectator above his head as though pursued by wasps.

‘Don’t be silly, darling,’ I said, refusing to feed his appetite for vicarious fame. A kindly reader had written, wondering if he was well, since I hadn’t mentioned him for a couple of weeks. He was more than well; he was well and truly infuriating, nursing his whisky and occasionally saying ‘Fine wines’, before falling silent until another pair of words spilt out, such as ‘Rare earths’, or ‘French cheeses’.

These were his quibbles after I’d explained that some nouns in English are uncountable. Much food is uncountable: bread, butter, toast. A Spaniard asks for tostadas; we ask for two pieces of toast. Why Eliot wrote of ‘the taking of a toast and tea’ I don’t know.

Also uncountable are abstract nouns such happiness, reality or glory. English does not use the definite or indefinite article with them, not at least unless they are qualified by a relative clause that defines them or a phrase with of: the love that dare not speak its name; the wealth of nations. I’d told my husband these things because we’d both been annoyed by the word behaviours. It is often on the lips of people who begin their responses on Today with ‘So…’. Then, in a thoughtful leader in the Guardian, I saw this: ‘The risks associated with panic behaviours such as stockpiling are well known.’ They are not well known to me, and I wonder what other behaviours the writer had in mind: screaming, sweating, running away? In any case, these would exemplify the abstract noun behaviour.

Or take this, an official response to a committee on domestic abuse: ‘The government is committed to tackling harassment and abusive behaviours by all individuals.’ It can’t possibly tackle harassment by all individuals, or their behaviour, but such statements flop lazily into air daily.

The other high scorer in the tables for annoying my husband and me is harms. These are often online, and of course the government ‘commits’ to tackling them. Yet what’s the harm in saying harm, not harms? Such verbal aberration must be one of those well-known panic behaviours.

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