The Grammarphobia Blog

Coffee talk

Q: My husband and I were talking about the remainder of solid material after a pot of coffee has been consumed. I have always called it “coffee grinds,” but Starbucks offers free “coffee grounds” for your garden. So is it “grinds” or “grounds” or both?

A: Starbucks, in its Grounds for Your Garden program, offers gardeners free five-pound bags “of soil-enriching coffee grounds” to use in composting or as fertilizer.

Is Starbucks using the term correctly? Yes.

The noun “grounds” in its coffee sense refers to the gunk left over after making a pot of java.

The noun “grinds” refers to the different degrees of ground coffee; for example, there are fine, medium, and coarse “grinds.”

Although many people use “grinds” to mean “grounds,” we haven’t found any standard dictionary that includes this usage.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “grounds” in this sense as “the particles deposited by a liquid in the bottom of the vessel containing it; dregs, lees.”

The OED has published examples dating back to the 1300s for “grounds” used in reference to the sediment from beer, tea, coffee, hot chocolate, and other liquids.

Here’s an 1860 citation from All the Year Round, a literary magazine founded, owned, and edited by Charles Dickens: “Cups of smoking black coffee (half grounds as the Turks drink it).”

The use of the noun “grind” to refer to the way coffee beans are ground is a much more recent usage, dating back to the mid-19th century, according to OED citations.

The dictionary defines “grind” in this sense as “the size of the particles of a powder, e.g. ground coffee.”

Oxford’s earliest citation for this usage is from All About Coffee, a 1922 book by William Harrison Ukers: “A progressive coffee-packing house may have … a pulverizer for making a really fine grind.”

The noun “grind,” according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, comes from the verb “grind,” which is ultimately derived from the Old English verbs grindan and forgrindan (“to destroy by crushing”).

The noun “ground,” though, is ultimately derived from the Old English noun grund (bottom, foundation, earth).

As we all know, the past tense of the verb “grind” is “ground.” But there’s an etymological as well as grammatical connection between the two words.

One early sense of  to “grind,” Chambers says,  is to put something in or on the “ground.”

Enough caffeinated language. We’re beginning to feel like Too Much Coffee Man!

Check out our books about the English language