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'coffee' or 'a coffee'?


markovitch
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I just returned from a short trip to the UK, and my nerdy word-geek self noticed that British people tend to refer to 'a coffee' as opposed to 'tea' (not 'a tea'), and usage suggests that coffee is a 'count noun' as opposed to a 'mass noun' (alternately an 'uncountable noun'). I have my own theory about this, but I wanted to ask the crowd here at egullet if anyone else can rep for my observations, or if anyone has noticed idiosycracies in how beverages are used in conversation.

anyone?

"The Internet is just a world passing around notes in a classroom."

---John Stewart

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Interesting topic to someone like me for whom English is a foreign language.

I think such expressions as "Two coffees, please" are quite common in the United States. I wonder if expressions like "Two teas, please" are common in England.

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I can't really help you with your theory as I've not spent too much time in England, but I will point out that the 'a coffee' phenomenon exists in the US also--at least, in the Northwest. People tend to say "some coffee" when they are speaking of what has traditionally been consumed in the States--coffee brewed from a French press or a simple coffee maker. On the other hand the phrase 'a coffee' is used when referring to anything espresso-based--ie, "let's go get a coffee at Stumptown." Could be like you said--Americans haven't been consuming espresso or espresso-based beverages for years like plain old coffee or tea.

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The indefinite article is used just as often as it is without, and everywhere across the US. It isn't like the soda-pop-Coke phenomenon one finds in various regions across the US.

iml

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IML--news to me. have you any sources I could scope? I've heard what eilen mentions about espresso-based drinks and indefinite articles, which makes sense--there's never a pot of latte brewing.

that said, it was a seminal moment in my linguistic career when I heard my cousin ask for a 'root beer coke'

"The Internet is just a world passing around notes in a classroom."

---John Stewart

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I had to think a moment about this. I use "a coffee" as informal shorthand for "a cup of coffee."

This morning to a young lady I chat with often at a local coffeehouse...

"Hey, how's it going? I'll have a coffee and a scone."

On the other hand, I would speak differently to someone I did not know...

"Good morning. I would like a cup of coffee and a scone, please."

I've never been to the UK and have lived all my life in the SF Bay Area.

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My experience is like that of IML. It varies in usage wherever I travel in the US and doesn't necessarily stick to any rule. But I find myself saying "coffee" rather than "a coffee" 75% of the time.

This is a wild guess.... but it seems that "coffee" is often used when there's a group context and "a coffee" when it's a single person consuming.

e.g. "Let's go for coffee"... or a question to a group of guests "Would you all like coffee?"

in contrast I might say to an office colleague - "I think I'll go out for a coffee - would you like me to bring one back for you" or to a guest in my home who has just arrived - "Would you like a coffee?"

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This is a wild guess....  but it seems that "coffee" is often used when there's a group context and "a coffee when it's a single person consuming.

e.g.  "Let's go for coffee"...  or a question to a group of guests "Would you all like coffee?"

in contrast I might say to an office colleague - "I think I'll go out for a coffee - would you like me to bring one back for you"  or to a guest in my home who has just arrived - "Would you like a coffee?"

I'm inclined to agree. If you preface the word "coffee" with the implied "cup of", it makes more sense this way, ie: "Would you (singular) like a cup of coffee?" vs "Would you (plural) like coffee?"

SB (drinking a cup of coffee as we speak) :wink:

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  • 4 weeks later...
I'm inclined to agree.  If you preface the word "coffee" with the implied "cup of", it makes more sense this way, ie: "Would you (singular) like a cup of coffee?" vs "Would you (plural) like coffee?"

SB (drinking a cup of coffee as we speak) :wink:

Well, I just couldn't resist this thread, being an old linguistics major who actually tries to teach English to people who were not raised speaking this devilish language when I'm not teaching the much more reasonable Spanish. I just had to check with my buddy Dick M., former office-mate and retired senior linguist for the software company we used to work at. (Okay, "at which we used to work.") Here's his take on it:

"Ah, another earth-shaking linguistic issue whose resolution which will doubtless influence generations to come. My own intuitions on the matter are that the article can be used when the substance in question is usually conveyed to the end-user in a standard, relatively small container of some sort whose size more-or-less defines one "dose." The article then actually modifies the understood and omitted container. Thus, you can get a (cup of) coffee or tea, a (glass of) lemonade, a (shot of) whiskey, a (bottle/can of) soda, beer, etc.--even an ice cream (normally cone, maybe dish, but definitely not pint, quart, etc.) But you can't get *a rice, *a soup, *a spaghetti, etc. [note: the asterisks denote incorrect grammar]

"That's my not-well-thought-out, off-the-top-of-the-head, response. Probably I'm wrong, but whatever the case, I have an opinion. Shoot me down if you can."

What I'm seeing develop here is a picture of Owen preparing to have coffee - lots of it, which is logical. In his travels he will, also logically, be spending time with others who drink entire pots of the stuff - coffee. As opposed to one normal human having a coffee - in a cup, not a pot.

Kinda reminds me of the difference between "un pez" - one fish still swimming in the sea - and "pescado" - a mess o' fish piled up in the fish market.

Okay, back to coffee, no matter what the quantity or countability.

Lonnie

"It is better to ask some of the questions than to know all of the answers." --James Thurber

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But you can't get *a rice, *a soup, *a spaghetti, etc. [note: the asterisks denote incorrect grammar]

Well, Lonnie, it seems to me that what you're saying is the unit is implied and to be correct usage it must be easily understood/not easy confused?? I'm not sure I agree with that but to address the above.... a rice would be a grain of rice, a soup (if used as 'I'm going to buy a soup') would be a bowl of soup, except perhaps at the grocery where it might mean a can, and a spaghetti would be a dry spaghetti noodle.... at least to me :laugh: So if you said them to me you would be correct since I would understand them.... Hmmmmm

Ken

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But you can't get *a rice, *a soup, *a spaghetti, etc. [note: the asterisks denote incorrect grammar]

Well, Lonnie, it seems to me that what you're saying is the unit is implied and to be correct usage it must be easily understood/not easy confused?? I'm not sure I agree with that but to address the above.... a rice would be a grain of rice, a soup (if used as 'I'm going to buy a soup') would be a bowl of soup, except perhaps at the grocery where it might mean a can, and a spaghetti would be a dry spaghetti noodle.... at least to me :laugh: So if you said them to me you would be correct since I would understand them.... Hmmmmm

Ken

Another exception could be in a restaurant kitchen, when a waitress calls out to the cook, "I need a rice, a soup, and a spaghetti", refering to three specific menu items by their singular names?

SB (Is this contextual grammer?) :wink:

Edited by srhcb (log)
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  • 2 weeks later...

Lonnie re: a rice, a soup, a ____

I think his analysis goes further than he thought, one can also argue that there is a null modifier in the cases of serving units:

a [bowl of] rice

a [cup of] soup

a [carboard cylinder of black liquid known as] coffee

I think this is the core of the issue--the perceived semantic unit as related to consumption-- if a speaker does not think of rice as coming in a bowl next to their stir fry, they're more likely to use the totally non-specified 'rice'

stumptown example: When one makes Stumptown coffee at home, does one say:

1) 'I am making coffee'

2) 'I am making a cup/pot of coffee'

or

3) % 'I am making a coffee'

(note % denotes akwardness)

the third is the most akward for me. when purchasing a fixed beverage from a stumptown locale, one is getting 'a [cup of] coffee.' If one assumes a fair bit of contextualization, interlocutors will assume the unit of measure (cup). I think this is pretty secure contexually--much confusion would result if one were to say:

4) I am going to stumptown for a [pound of] coffee.

they'd expect a white paper cup on return, not a bag o' beans.

i think i rehashed a bit of the few posts, but oh well.

"The Internet is just a world passing around notes in a classroom."

---John Stewart

my blog

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I'm inclined to agree.  If you preface the word "coffee" with the implied "cup of", it makes more sense this way, ie: "Would you (singular) like a cup of coffee?" vs "Would you (plural) like coffee?"

SB (drinking a cup of coffee as we speak) :wink:

Well, I just couldn't resist this thread, being an old linguistics major who actually tries to teach English to people who were not raised speaking this devilish language when I'm not teaching the much more reasonable Spanish. I just had to check with my buddy Dick M., former office-mate and retired senior linguist for the software company we used to work at. (Okay, "at which we used to work.") Here's his take on it:

"Ah, another earth-shaking linguistic issue whose resolution which will doubtless influence generations to come. My own intuitions on the matter are that the article can be used when the substance in question is usually conveyed to the end-user in a standard, relatively small container of some sort whose size more-or-less defines one "dose." The article then actually modifies the understood and omitted container. Thus, you can get a (cup of) coffee or tea, a (glass of) lemonade, a (shot of) whiskey, a (bottle/can of) soda, beer, etc.--even an ice cream (normally cone, maybe dish, but definitely not pint, quart, etc.) But you can't get *a rice, *a soup, *a spaghetti, etc. [note: the asterisks denote incorrect grammar]

"That's my not-well-thought-out, off-the-top-of-the-head, response. Probably I'm wrong, but whatever the case, I have an opinion. Shoot me down if you can."

What I'm seeing develop here is a picture of Owen preparing to have coffee - lots of it, which is logical. In his travels he will, also logically, be spending time with others who drink entire pots of the stuff - coffee. As opposed to one normal human having a coffee - in a cup, not a pot.

Kinda reminds me of the difference between "un pez" - one fish still swimming in the sea - and "pescado" - a mess o' fish piled up in the fish market.

Okay, back to coffee, no matter what the quantity or countability.

Lonnie

Going on this theory, I should ask my guest if she'd like "a water."

I suspect she'd fear I was getting ready to sprinkle her.

I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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Same thing as Eilen described: I buy or make 'a' coffee when its anything fancier than straight from the brew vessel +cream and sugar. That old standby is 'coffee' or 'some coffee', or 'a cup of coffee'.

Same thing happened with beer. My folks drank a glass of or a can of beer (mass). My college roomies "had a beer" (or six) (count).

Jaymes, thanks for the chuckle. I suspect the day is here when some folks open the fridge, show off the various bottles of water in the door, and ask their guest if she wants 'a water'. I've been asked if I wanted 'a Perrier'.

Edited by Kouign Aman (log)

"You dont know everything in the world! You just know how to read!" -an ah-hah! moment for 6-yr old Miss O.

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