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Food vs. Foods: What’s the Difference?

English is often difficult to completely master, even for a native speaker. The English language is continually evolving. While plurals seem straightforward, there are numerous exceptions, such as food and foods; and how to know what the difference is between the two.

“Food” is almost always an uncountable noun used to refer to food in general, while “foods” is the countable plural noun, meaning kinds of food. When used as an attributive noun, “food” functions much like an adjective for either singular or plural nouns although we might find the word “food” used as a countable singular noun in rare cases.

This article will discuss food versus foods, count and noncount nouns, determiners, and issues related to words of quantity. Read on to become an expert not just on food vs. foods, but all count and noncount nouns you encounter.

Is Foods the Plural of Food?

The short answer is yes, but we’ll need to understand the function of count and noncount nouns to know when to use this form properly. Food is most often used in the singular form as a noncount noun for the category of food; however, we use the plural form “foods” when referring to multiple food types (source).

For example, you might have Chinese food, Italian food, Mexican food, all in one place during a festival or some special buffet. If you sampled them all, you could claim to have tried various foods from around the globe.

There are various noun categories, including singular, plural, common, collective, noncount, count, and attributive nouns (source).

Singular nouns refer to a specific subject such as food, cabin, boy, wall, door. 

Plural nouns refer to more than one, such as foods, cabins, boys, walls, doors.

Common nouns, as opposed to capitalized proper nouns, are not specific, referring to a very broad class of something, like milk or coffee.

Common nouns do not refer to individuals as individuals but by the common characteristics denoted by the noun. Food is a common noun.

Collective nouns are also known as group nouns that reference a group of individuals as a single entity. The three types of collective nouns are persons, animals, or things, whether objects or concepts.

Examples include a child, a herd, or a bouquet of flowers. We can use them with indefinite articles and they have plural forms.

Uncountable, noncount, or mass nouns refer to a substance we can divide indefinitely or an abstract concept.

They differ from collective nouns in that we do not use them in English with an indefinite article unless they are double nouns, and they do not have a plural form.

Many foods are noncount nouns like sugar, rice, pepper, or tea (source).

Count nouns refer to kinds of people, animals, or things that can be counted individually, such as foods, chairs, pens, and dollars. We can easily assign numbers or definite articles to them, and they have singular and plural forms.

Attributive nouns often function as adjectives, describing another noun as in the case of “food group” or “food groups.” Merriam-Webster lists “food” as a noun and one that is often attributive (source). 

It is interesting to note that attributive nouns sound like compound nouns when spoken —  for example, a steel bridge or a wood house — but they are not compound nouns.

Compound nouns such as “rowboat” or “rainbow” are not attributive nouns. Row does not modify the boat, and rain does not modify the bow.

The noun that the attributive noun modifies can be either singular or plural.

NounExample Sentences
NoncountFood makes me happy.
Countable SingularCereal is a food.
The girl is eating an orange.
NoncountCereal is food.
Let’s go out for some food.
We ate a lot of food.
Countable PluralThere are so many foods to choose.
The buffet was a smorgasbord of foods from different countries.
There are many Asian restaurants that serve foods from China and Korea.
AttributiveWhat are the major food groups?
Do you have food allergies?
The food choice was limited.

In the second example, “Cereal is a food,” the word “food” is a countable singular noun, placing the uncountable noun “Cereal” as one type of food.

We can also omit the article “a” and simply state that cereal is food. Adding an article helps to emphasize something as a particular example of a larger concept.

Food and Foods as Count Nouns

Both the words “food” and “foods” can be countable nouns, depending on the context. When used in the countable category, the definition always refers to the different types.

A count noun is just what it sounds like — something made up of distinct, countable units, so they can take singular or plural forms.

A count noun will often have a quantity word, number, or article in front of it. For instance, the count noun “table” is written as “a table,” “the table,” “one table,” “five tables,” or “the tables” (source).

The key to understanding the use of countable and uncountable nouns is their relationship to determiners, which includes definite articles, indefinite articles, possessives, quantifiers, and numbers (source).

A determiner is similar to an adjective, except a determiner can only go before the noun.

Again, “foods” is always a countable noun, while “food” can be countable or uncountable. When used in the uncountable category, “food” refers to the things we eat. When used as a countable noun, food refers to particular types of food (source).

Countable Singular FoodNoncount Singular Food
Food = particular types of food.Food = the things we eat.
The fruit is a food.I ate too much food.
The pears are a food.I ate the food on my plate.
He has a food allergy.Hey, that was my food!
There are five food groups.We went out for some food.
He prepared 10 food dishes.We watched him prepare the food.

Count Nouns and Indefinite Articles

News, Fake News, Newspaper, Press, Questions, Question
Image by viarami via Pixabay

When we add an “a” or “an” in front of a noun, we turn it into something we can break down into smaller pieces or elements.

“A” and “an” are used as modifiers for nonspecific nouns, so they are called indefinite articles. The articles “a” or “an” are only used with singular count nouns and never with noncount nouns.

Since food begins with the consonant “f,” we use the article “a” instead of “an,” which is only used for words beginning with the vowel sound (source).

SingularExample SentencePluralExample Sentence
foodAn apple is a delicious food.foodsMany types of food are served in the cafeteria.
foodWhat type of food is your favorite, Asian or American?foodsI like a variety of foods, including fruits and vegetables.
orangeI ate an orange.orangesI like oranges.
beanWhat kind of bean do you like?beansThere are many varieties of beans.
boyJohn is a boy.boysJohn and Bill are boys.
soupMy favorite soup is tomato.soupsI can never decide which soups to buy at the store.
cookbookJane borrowed one cookbook from the library.cookbooksJohn borrowed four cookbooks.
coatI have a coat.coatsI have a few winter coats.
hatJohn’s hat is over there.hatsJohn has many hats.

Count Nouns and Definite Articles

“The” is used when referring to specific nouns, so we call it a definite article.

A definite article is when the reader knows the noun’s identity — for example, “The orange was delicious.” “The” can also modify noncount nouns — for example, “The food” or “The coffee” (source).

It is essential to remember that count nouns have both singular and plural forms, whereas noncount nouns do not have a plural form.

Noncount NounsDefinite Article The
FoodThe food is delicious.
healthThe health of our students is in jeopardy.
EnglishThe English test was easy.
furThe fur on the cat was fluffy.

Count Nouns: Quantifiers and Numbers

We can only add numbers before counts nouns, but we can add quantifiers before either count nouns or noncount nouns. We can attach quantifiers like some, enough, all, more, less, no, any, none, plenty of, lots of, and not to either count or noncount nouns.

However, there are some quantifiers that we can only use with count nouns, like several, many, few, a number of, and a majority of.

QuantifierCount NounExample Sentence
somegrapesI have some grapes.
severalfoodsThere were several foods to choose from.
manyfoodThe caterers wanted to ensure there were many food options.
fewfoodThe menu listed few low-fat foods.
enoughapplesI can never have enough apples.
NumberCount NounExample Sentence
onefoodI had to choose one food.
twofoodThey gave me two food options.
threefoodsThe meal centered around three foods.
ninepotatoesI have nine potatoes.
foureggsHe added four eggs.

Food as a Noncount Noun

Inversely, an uncountable, noncount, or mass noun is not countable. Noncount nouns are considered whole, undividable into different parts. Noncount nouns generally refer to abstractions and sometimes have a collective meaning (source).

Noncount nouns do not always require articles, and when they use them, they always use “the” and never “a” or “an.”

Noncount nouns do not have a plural form. The categories included under noncount nouns are a mass, an organic substance, food, abstract concepts, games, disease, school subjects, and a language. However, we will discover rules have exceptions.

CategoryNoncount Nouns
A massClothes, money, work
Organic substanceHair, blood
FoodMilk, bread, cream, water
Abstract conceptHealth, time, education
A gameLacrosse, chess, volleyball
DiseasesFlu, virus, cold, chickenpox
School subjectEnglish, science, math
A languageGerman, Portgegese, Polish
Noncount NounsExample Sentence
FoodFood makes me happy.The food was great!
MoneyJoe made a lot of money over the summer.
HairMy hair is greasy.
CreamI enjoy cream in my coffee.
HealthMarvin is in good health.
LacrosseLacrosse is not an easy sport to play.
Chicken PoxThe little girl has chickenpox.
MathMath was never my favorite subject.
GermanGerman is not an easy language to learn.

Noncount Nouns: Quantifiers

While we can apply qualifiers to count and noncount nouns, there are some quantifiers we can only use with noncount nouns. These include much, little, a bit, a large amount of, a great deal of, and a large quantity of. 

QuantifierCount/NoncountExample Sentence
muchnoncountI have so much food.
manycountI have so many bananas.
A lot of (much)noncountI have a lot of food.
Lots of (many)countI have lots of food.
littleuncountableI have very little food to eat.
fewcountA have a few pieces of candy.
A little bit ofuncountableThere is a little bit of wine in the stew.

Others that can modify both count and noncount nouns are some, any, plenty of, enough, and no, all referring to a nonspecific amount. “Foods” will always be countable, while “food” is usually uncountable.

QuantifierCount/NoncountExample Sentence
somenoncountThere is some juice on the counter.
somenoncountI have some food.
anynoncountI don’t have any candy.
anycountDo you have any apples?
Plenty ofnoncountI have plenty of food for the party.
enoughcountI have enough apples for every child.
nocountThere are no more bananas to eat.
Food, Buffet, Event, Party, Meal, Decoration, Table
Image by metalvibes via Pixabay

Food and Double Nouns

Food can function as a count or noncount noun. However, the meaning changes a bit depending on the use. According to the writing center at Walden University, the name for such nouns is double nouns (source). 

When double nouns are in the noncount form, they refer to a whole idea. When used in the count form, it must be used with an indefinite article or changed to plural. Most double nouns refer to food.

A few examples of double nouns as food and different food types, such as wine, cheese, and tea. Here are examples using the same noun as both count and noncount:

CountExample SentenceNoncount Example Sentence
foodAn apple is food.foodLet’s go out for some food.
wineThere are so many varieties of wine.wineThe Sonoma Valley in California produces some of the finest wine.
glassI have a glass of milk.glassWe use glass cups for milk.
teaI drank four cups of tea today.teaMy favorite tea is red rooibos.
lifeShe leads a dangerous life.lifeLife is precious.

Final Thoughts

No discussion on nouns would be complete without delving into articles, the function of determiners for both count and noncount nouns, and the function of adjectives apart from articles.

You will most often encounter “food” as an uncountable noun, but “foods” will always be a countable noun. When you do encounter “food” as a countable noun, it will have the indefinite article “a” in front of it.

Food Types: Understanding the Various Food Groups

Thursday 4th of February 2021

[…] For an article on the difference between “food’ and “foods,” make sure you read our article on the plural form of “food.” […]

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