Sunday, July 07, 2013

on "leftovers"

I made too much food on the Fourth, so now I've got too many leftovers: two whole racks of St. Louis-style ribs, not to mention a few pounds of thick-cut Korean short ribs.

Let's think about that phrase, too many leftovers, for a moment.

Some nouns are count nouns (a.k.a. counting nouns or countable nouns); other nouns are mass nouns (a.k.a. non-count nouns, non-counting nouns, or uncountable nouns). Some nouns can be either, depending on context:

COUNT: The saint loved all the fishes of the sea.
MASS: I ate a lot of fish last night.

COUNT: The vocabularies of Spanish and French share many similarities.
MASS: I've learned so much vocabulary in Korean class.

COUNT: How many times have I told you not to leave the toilet seat up?
MASS: She's spending quite a bit of time on that toilet, isn't she?

COUNT: How many sugars do you want in your tea?
MASS: Toby put way too much sugar in his coffee.

COUNT: We had a slew of interesting experiences while in France.
MASS: He doesn't have much experience as a pilot.

The word leftovers, though, sits in a weird gray area in English. On one hand, as the phrase too many leftovers indicates, leftovers is a countable noun. On the other hand, have you ever heard anyone say, "One leftover, two leftovers, three leftovers"...? I haven't. So just how countable is this supposedly countable noun? Supporting the notion that leftover is a countable noun is the fact that the singular form, [a] leftover, exists. Again, though: have you ever heard anyone say, "I've got two leftovers in the fridge"? Me, neither.

The word leftover can be used as an uncountable noun:

We've got lots of leftovers, so I want you to take some home with you.


We've got several leftovers, so I want you to take some home with you.*

So! Leftovers: countable or uncountable? Perhaps we need to coin a new term for this subtype of a part of speech: the un[ac]countably countable noun. Are there other examples?

*Strangely enough, I just Googled the string "several leftovers," and got over 8600 results. Who the hell talks like that? In any case, 8600 is a low enough number for me to claim that such usage is uncommon, if not positively rare. Contrast this with the search string "lots of leftovers," which garners over 766,000 results. "Too many leftovers"? Over 900,000 results.


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