The Grammarphobia Blog

A piece of cake

Q: I’m a fourth-grade teacher in Massachusetts. My students have been reading Pat’s grammar book for kids, Woe Is I Jr., and they’ve asked why we say “I’d like some pieces of candy” as opposed to “I’d like some pieces of candies.”

A: We’re talking here about “candy” as a general category. The word “candy” doesn’t stand for an individual object, but for an entire category of food, like “meat” or “bread” or “fruit” or “cake.”

When this is the case, the thing you’re counting (“candy”) remains singular, whether you’re talking about one piece or many.

That’s is why we say “pieces of meat” and “pieces of bread” and “pieces of fruit” and “pieces of cake.” We don’t say “pieces of meats” or “pieces of breads” or “pieces of fruits” or “pieces of cakes.”

If you look on pages 24 and 25 of Woe Is I Jr., you’ll find a section on how to use phrases like “kinds of” and “sorts of” and “types of” with plural words.

However, these phrases can also be followed by singular words if those words represent an entire category of something.

This is true with the phrase “pieces of” as well as “kinds of,” “breeds of,” “brands of,” “varieties of,” and others.  

Here’s how it works:

“Our teacher has an important piece of information” … “Our principal has two important pieces of information.”

“Emma’s mom made one kind of chicken” … “Jordan’s mom made two kinds of chicken.”

“I am familiar with only one breed of dog” … “At the dog show, there were fifty breeds of dog.”

“He likes one brand of cereal” … “She likes three brands of cereal.

“This painting has one variety of red” … “That painting has three varieties of red.”

“Our kitchen has only one piece of furniture” … “Our living room has eight pieces of furniture.”

In all these cases, the noun following “of” (that is, “candy,” “information,” “chicken,” “dog,” “cereal,” “red,” “furniture”) doesn’t represent a single object but a category of something, so it remains singular. 

We hope your students find this answer a piece of cake!  

And by the way, Pat would like to inform you and the class about an error in Woe Is I Jr.

On page 99, the second sentence of the second paragraph should read:

“Most of the time, we use an in front of a vowel, or soft letter, and a in front of a consonant, or hard one.”

Please mark this in your book, which mistakenly has the rule reversed! Pat hopes this will be corrected in later printings.

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