scissors, pants, jeans... are they really uncountable nouns?

Discussion in 'English Only' started by marrisol, Jan 6, 2010.

  1. marrisol Junior Member

    German - Swiss
    Hello all!
    My grammar book says that the above mentioned words are uncountable. I believe to have heard some people using numbers with them.The sentences "I need three scissors" or "I bought two pants" don't sound odd to me. Are they really wrong?
    Saying "I bought two pairs of pants" instead of "two pants" sounds somewhat awkward to me. Is this just me or is my grammar book a little out of touch with real life English?
     
  2. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Hi marrisol

    Here's how they sound to me:
    Three pairs of pants :tick:
    Three pants :cross:
    Three pairs of jeans :tick:
    Three jeans :cross:
    Three pairs of scissors :tick:
    Three scissors :cross:

    I hope that helps:)
     
  3. panjandrum

    panjandrum PongoMod

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
  4. marrisol Junior Member

    German - Swiss
    Thanks for your answers.
    Going through the older threads wouldn't have helped me as I was not asking if it's possible to say "a pants" which obviously isn't. I wanted to know if I could use plural numbers with "pants" without having to say "pairs of" but I take it it doesn't work either.
    So, on the bright side, I now know that I have a good grammar book ;-)
     
  5. JamesM

    JamesM à la Mod

    Actually, if you had checked the older threads you would have seen that one of the questions was: "Can I say three pants?"

    This board operates a little differently from other boards on the internet. Rule #1 here is really a rule: "Look it up first". ;)
     
  6. Maria Ovidia Junior Member

    Brazil - Portuguese
    I dont think these words are uncountable nouns, but simply plural nouns with specific usage once they are always "in twos".
    Also I'll risk saying that informally people use the simpler forms:
    three scissors,
    in his trousers...
    if we google these words, there will be varied options...
    http://www.macmillandictionary.com
     
  7. Aidanriley

    Aidanriley Senior Member

    SD, California
    English
    I completely agree with Loob. I wouldn't refer to more than one of them unless "pairs of" was added.
     
  8. JamesM

    JamesM à la Mod

    I can imagine saying "three scissors" in an informal conversation with a friend, such as "I went to the office supply store and picked up three scissors for my classroom". I wouldn't use it in any formal or business setting, though. On the other hand, I can't imagine saying "I picked up three pants". The "pairs of" is so ingrained in me that it would come out automatically.

    This would only be a single pair of pants to me. I can't imagine a context where it would be used with a number, as in "in his three trousers".
     
  9. Cagey post mod

    California
    English - US
    I agree with the distinction Panjandrum makes in post #3; I think it is fairly common to talk about three scissors but not three pants or jeans, at least in AE.

    Edit: I also agree with JamesM, who posted while I was slowly writing this.
     
    Last edited: Jul 5, 2014
  10. timpeac

    timpeac Senior Member

    England
    English (England)
    For me even the scissors example sounds wrong - "we've got three scissors in the kitchen drawer", hmmm - very odd! Makes me think of some sort of three bladed contraption.:)
     
  11. Cagey post mod

    California
    English - US
    Sets of three scissors are sold in both the UK and the US. Aside from these:

    Here is one non-commercial citation from the UK:
    Museum of London Archaeology Three Scissors
    Three Scissors. Children's scissors found during our excavations of the Hamline Methodist Church site. The scissors are from the debris inside the church ...
    One from the US:
    Treasury decisions under customs and other laws‎ - Page 239
    [SIZE=-1]United States. Dept. of the Treasury (1927).[/SIZE]
    [SIZE=-1] ... return for duty leather cases when fitted with three scissors and the cases [/SIZE][SIZE=-1]are of substantial and durable quality as leather cases permanently fitted ...[/SIZE]
    [SIZE=-1]
    (There are more recent examples from the US, but this was the most august.)[/SIZE]
     
    Last edited: Jan 7, 2010
  12. timpeac

    timpeac Senior Member

    England
    English (England)

    Maybe - but the person who uploaded it is called Buzz Hoffman which would make me suspect he's American. Also he has a job as "college professor" whereas a Brit would talk of "university don".

    But I'm not claiming a BE/AE difference necessarily, just saying that three scissors certainly sounds strange to me.
     
  13. Aidanriley

    Aidanriley Senior Member

    SD, California
    English
    Three scissors sounds very weird to me. I'm not sure if that helps things or makes them even more confusing.
     
  14. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Cagey, you can find pants & jeans examples too ...;)

    Whether your girlfriend is pressuring you to go on a shopping spree or you feel the urge to tailor your clothes to today's look, there's no need to panic; all you'll need this winter are three shirts and three pants, and you'll have a blast heating up any room. (source)

    Here are my top three jeans for the summer (source)

    But I think there's something a bit "unusual" about all of these - there's a sort of understood 'styles of'/'types of'/'examples of' involved: no?
     
  15. Aidanriley

    Aidanriley Senior Member

    SD, California
    English
    Those examples sound perfectly fine to me. I think the first one sounds okay because it parallels "three shirts."
     
  16. Cagey post mod

    California
    English - US
    I can find pants and jean samples, too, but when I look them over, many of them are other constructions in which the juxtaposition with three is coincidental.

    When I search with "scissors", the majority of the first pages are advertisements for sets of three scissors, from both UK and US vendors.

    I seem to have made a mistake when I relied on a London Museum to represent British usage. Here is one in which the provenance is certainly British ~ I think.
    http://www.frenchaymuseumarchives.co.uk/Archives/Schools/AllSaintsSchLogBook_1944-61.rtf.
    2 June 1958 School re-opened. Cleaner's child found back door and stock cupboard door when she came to open School for Sunday School. head teacher found everything disarranged. [....] Three scissors were missing. From the archives of the Frenchay Village Museum
    Having said all that, I have worked at a job in which scissors were a tool of the trade. As I remember it, we usually talked about "my scissors", but "a new pair of scissors". I'm not certain whether we would say "we need more scissors [multiple]" or "we need more pairs of scissors." I tend to think we said the former.
     
    Last edited: Jan 7, 2010
  17. JamesM

    JamesM à la Mod

    Just to clarify my comment, :) I would not normally say "there are three scissors in the drawer". It does sound odd to me, too.

    I can imagine it, however, if you are casually speaking about picking up multiple pairs at the store, as in "I picked up five rulers, two staplers and three scissors to replace the ones stolen from the office". It would not be correct English, in my opinion, but I can definitely imagine hearing it and even saying it, if I wasn't thinking about what I was saying. "Pairs of scissors" sounds better to me but I think it's a slip that's not unheard of, whereas "where are my three pants" would sound so odd as to be (nearly) unheard of to me.
     
  18. abenr

    abenr Senior Member

    Scottsdale, AZ, USA
    English, USA
    I find nothing wrong in saying three scissors. In fact I don't believe I would say or have ever said anything other than that.
     
  19. timpeac

    timpeac Senior Member

    England
    English (England)
    The source that you quote there, though, is very elliptical (presumably to save space). In the bit you quote there we have "School re-opened" "child found back door" "head teacher found" all with no articles for example.

    I'm not saying you don't find it - but I would find it odd to hear someone actually say "could you go and fetch me three scissors please" - well as equally strange as "be sure to bring at least three trousers with you" etc.

    That said - I don't find "we need more scissors" as strange, just colloquial.
     
  20. Alxmrphi Senior Member

    Reykjavík, Ísland
    UK English
    Quote as many examples from Google as you feel like but that doesn't convince me it sounds normal nor rewires my brain to treat it as acceptable, I agree with Loob / timepac.
    If we were researching usage statistics then maybe, but this is about what we personally feel is correct / incorrect as native speakers on a language forum, I don't see the relevance of quoting articles in this way.

    Maybe something like this? :)
     
    Last edited: Jan 7, 2010
  21. pickarooney

    pickarooney Senior Member

    Provence, France
    English (Ireland)
    Has nobody else ever said 'scissorses' to mean more than one set of scissors?

    dictionary.com lists the singular 'scissor' as an alternative noun to 'scissors'.
     
  22. Aidanriley

    Aidanriley Senior Member

    SD, California
    English
    Scissorses? No, can't say I have. That'd be a double plural or something; each blade is a scissor, and together they are a pair of scissors.
     
  23. juan89 Senior Member

    Chelmsford, United Kingdom
    Español - Bogotá, Colombia
    Why don't you just say two pairs of scissors...
     
  24. Copyright

    Copyright Senior Member

    Penang
    American English
    If the lady asked me what I was packing for our trip and I wanted to give a quick rundown, I might say, "I've packed five shirts, three pants, seven underwear, and five pairs of socks." I would probably always say "pairs" with socks because those little guys are separable, unlike pants which are sewn into loyalty.
     
  25. sound shift Senior Member

    Derby (central England)
    English - England
    If these were uncountable nouns, we would say

    :warn: "The scissors is on the table" and
    :warn: "My trousers is too long".

    So no, they are not uncountable.
     
  26. marrisol Junior Member

    German - Swiss
    Interesting... I didn't think my question would kick off such an extensive debate.

    Sound shift: I see your point. Nevertheless they do appear in my grammar book in the "uncountable nouns" section just as they do in this explanation.


    I guess they treat them like uncountables because you can't say *one pant nor *three pants without "the detour" of using a pair of (as I have just learnt) just as you can't say *one bread or *two breads without using a loaf of, the only difference being that scissors/pants/jeans... are plural by nature.


    I was just asking because I was anticipating that my students would ask the same question when we get to the next unit because in German we can also say "a pair of trousers/pants/jeans..." but we leave it out more often and I guess that's why it sounded more natural to me without it.



    Anyway, thanks for your help which is very much appreciated!
     
  27. Alxmrphi Senior Member

    Reykjavík, Ísland
    UK English
    Hi Marrisol,

    My grammar book agrees with yours "Swan: Practical English Usage":
    It also lists "customs" (i.e. at Dover) and 'thanks' as other examples.
     
  28. abenr

    abenr Senior Member

    Scottsdale, AZ, USA
    English, USA
    You can correctly say "one bread" or "two breads" in my neck of the woods. Here are two examples.

    I'd like one rye bread, please.

    I'll have two breads, please: one rye, one whole wheat.

    "Loaf" is not needed in either sentence.
     
  29. pickarooney

    pickarooney Senior Member

    Provence, France
    English (Ireland)
    Not only is it acceptable (in many places) to say 'a bread' or 'two breads', it's downright wrong to say 'a loaf of bread' when referring to baguettes, pita, chapatis...
     
  30. Alxmrphi Senior Member

    Reykjavík, Ísland
    UK English
    But it's well known when you're referring to different sub-types then it is possible to use numbers in some circumstances.

    Like going into a cheese shop (where there are obviously lots of types of cheese) and saying "I'll have 5 cheeses today" (you're referring to different types) so it's ok, but it's still an uncountable noun insofar as the function when not referring to different types (this goes for the 'bread' example 2 posts above as well).

    You might say "a rye bread", and refer to a specific, whatwouldyoucallit, a stick of it, this is again, normal, it's in an identifiable countable form.

    @pickarooney, the 'default' word to use isn't 'loaf', it's usually the most common, but like the jeans/scissors example, where the default word is 'pair' to use with it, this isn't the same with loaf so you don't have to use 'loaf' with ciabatta, baguette, garlic bread etc.

    More info can be found here, for example:

    And to sum up the idea of uncountable nouns in English with:
    So if although there are exceptions, if you can't gauge a quantity when adding numbers to it (again I'm referring to the 'bread' example now) then it's uncountable, and referring to different types is a well-known exception to many many uncountable nouns.
     
    Last edited: Jan 8, 2010
  31. Derselbe Senior Member

    Deutsch, German, ドイツ語
    Just from a logical point of view, if we assume that the word scissors on its own always refers to a pair of scissors. Wouldn't it be accurate to say that one pair of scissors consists of two scissors?
     
  32. abenr

    abenr Senior Member

    Scottsdale, AZ, USA
    English, USA
    I have never heard anyone ask "Have you seen the pair of scissors?" I've only heard "Have you seen the scissors? I thought I put them down on the table." In answer, I've only heard "The scissors are in the drawer."

    Usage clearly trumps grammar in this case.
     
  33. JamesM

    JamesM à la Mod

    Actually, your usage confirms grammar in this case. :) You haven't heard "The scissors is in the drawer."
     
  34. abenr

    abenr Senior Member

    Scottsdale, AZ, USA
    English, USA
    Thank goodness! ;)
     
  35. Pedro y La Torre

    Pedro y La Torre Senior Member

    Paris, France
    English (Ireland)
    I very much agree.
     
  36. MJSinLondon Senior Member

    London
    English - UK (London)
    This is a wonderful thread! I agree with Loob and with your grammar book, marrisol.
     
  37. JamesM

    JamesM à la Mod

    I am not quite sure if this on topic and I hated to bring it up earlier, but I'll give it a try.

    I often say "pair" instead of "pairs" for all these things, as in "three pair of pants". I don't know whether it is colloquial or not. I wouldn't write it that way but it sounds perfectly natural to say "pair", especially if I am talking quickly.
     
  38. Alxmrphi Senior Member

    Reykjavík, Ísland
    UK English
    Hi James, that's quite common over here as well.
    It's typical of our Yorkshire dialect, though through reality TV when used with pants / jeans I've heard many other people say it.
    It's not common where I'm from and I'd never say it (i.e. talking without thinking), it'd be one of those identifiable characteristics that make your mind instantly go 'Not from round here', but I don't have a problem with it at all, I didn't know it was also in the US actually.
     
  39. bluegiraffe

    bluegiraffe Senior Member

    Nottingham, England
    English - England
    Also common round my way.
     
  40. timpeac

    timpeac Senior Member

    England
    English (England)
    I wouldn't say it - but it sounds believable.

    It is something to do with nouns of quantity? I could also image "5 pound of butter", "3 acre of land", "2 pint of beer" - although again I wouldn't say them personally. In terms of our currency "pound" some people would also say "it cost 5 pound" etc.
     
  41. Alxmrphi Senior Member

    Reykjavík, Ísland
    UK English
    Hi timepac, wouldn't you?

    I'm not aware of anyone that uses the plural 'pound' when talking about currency. I've met a fair few people as well!
    If you came home with a book that cost £7 and someone asked you how much it was, would you say "It cost me seven pounds." ?
    Or if you got a cheque for Christmas for £100 would you say "I got a 100 pounds cheque off Mary." (or 'A cheque for 100 pounds') ?

    In my area we use 'quid' more than we use pound (in colloquial speech), that's never pluralised either.
     
  42. timpeac

    timpeac Senior Member

    England
    English (England)
    Yes - I'd say "it cost seven pounds" but no I wouldn't say "100 pounds cheque" I'd say "100 pound cheque" - but here "pound" is an adjective.

    Quid, though, is never plural for me either.
     
  43. Phil-Olly Senior Member

    Scotland, English
    Isn't this interesting?

    What about shop-assistant speak: 'That's a nice trouser, sir' ?
     
  44. bluegiraffe

    bluegiraffe Senior Member

    Nottingham, England
    English - England
    I don't think we shop in the same shops.
     
  45. Alxmrphi Senior Member

    Reykjavík, Ísland
    UK English
    Seconded :)
    Of course it is, excuse my relapse.
    Hmm, interesting about the plural pound, I can't actually remember how other people say it now, I'll go and watch some 'Cash in the attic' style shows and see what they say (I'd rather die :D) but it's made me interested in doing a bit of research about it.

    [Edit]:

    Ok it seems some people draw a comparison with 'foot' as in "5 foot 10 inches" and use it in the singular and don't use the plural 'feet' and there are a few people who insist both forms are correct.
    Some people have raised questions and it seems to be common that BBC readers (on TV and Radio are accustomed to using the singular) though I was not able to find any examples of this, just of people's questions about it (though BBC Learn English uses examples to the contrary).

    Will look more later.
     
    Last edited: Jan 8, 2010
  46. panjandrum

    panjandrum PongoMod

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Shop-assistant or buyer, those who deal in varieties of these things as a matter of course seem to be happy talking about a style of them in the singular. This seems to sound familiar with trouser and jean, but not pant and scissor.

    Here is an example of the singular trouser.
    This straight leg trouser has a very clean finish in order to make this an easy to wear style this will allow you to dress this trouser up as much as you like wear with our printed tops to create a contemporary look this trouser is available in black and brown to make this an easy style to go with any of this seasons colours
    Blame attribution
    Make of that what you will :)
     
  47. ortak

    ortak Senior Member

    Turkey
    Turkish
    So as I understood it'd be better to say they to refer scissors instead of it.
     
  48. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Yes:)
     
  49. ortak

    ortak Senior Member

    Turkey
    Turkish
    But it'd be wrong to say they to refer trousers because they are sewn into loyalty and it is better to say it. :)
     
  50. timpeac

    timpeac Senior Member

    England
    English (England)
    They. Where are your trousers? They are in the cupboard.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Jan 25, 2010

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