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Let’s do the mashed potatoes

Q: My husband was riding his bike slower than normal when a friend asked, “Did you have too much mashed potatoes last night?” That got him wondering: too much, too many, too much of? What is the correct methodology of inquiring if someone has overindulged in mashed potatoes?

A: A noun phrase like “mashed potatoes” can be confusing. Does it refer to the individual potatoes that have been mashed? Or to the dish produced by mashing them?

In technical terms, is “mashed potatoes” a countable or an uncountable noun phrase? Are we thinking of individual potatoes that can be counted, or a dish made from an indeterminate number of potatoes?

Well, there’s one thing we’ve learning after writing this blog for seven years. No job is too big or too small for academic linguists. They’ll take on anything.

Stephanie Solt, a researcher at DAS, a linguistics institute in Berlin, discusses the ambiguity of “mashed potatoes” and similar dishes in a paper entitled “Q-Adjectives and the Semantics of Quantity.”

In a footnote, she points out the difficulty in choosing between the adjectives “many” and “much” when modifying “anomalous plurals such as refried beans, mashed potatoes and scrambled eggs.”

She writes that these phrases “syntactically show at least some of the characteristics of plural count nouns, but semantically denote noncountable substances or portions of matter.”

“These items are at least marginally acceptable with both many and much, but with a difference in meaning,” she adds.

She gives two Q-and-A examples concerning “scrambled eggs” to make her point:

“Q: How many scrambled eggs do you want?

“A: Three

“Q: How much scrambled eggs do you want?

 “A: A lot/a little/a scoopful/about half the amount you gave him.”

She also offers this hodgepodge of an example: “These/this mashed potatoes/refried beans/scrambled eggs are/is cold.”

Interestingly, the dishes that Americans call “mashed potatoes” and “scrambled eggs” are often referred to as “mashed potato” and “scrambled egg” by British speakers.

Lynne Murphy, an American linguist at the University of Sussex in England, discusses this in a post published a few years ago on her blog Separated by a Common Language.

“These kinds of prepared food are substances more than individuable things,” she writes. “You can’t see the boundaries of the individual eggs or potatoes once they are scrambled or mashed.”

She points out that the British “forms reflect this—they’re singular just as other ‘substance’ food names,” but the American forms “reflect the state of the food before mashing/scrambling.”

“Does this mean that Americans think more about the origins of their food?” she adds. “I can’t think of much other evidence for that.”

We agree. In fact, the American usage seems to be gaining ground in Britain. We’ve checked four standard British dictionaries and half of them list “mashed potatoes” as the primary entry with “mashed potato” as an also-ran.

Another way of looking at “mashed potatoes” is through the lens of notional agreement—that is, agreement based on meaning to the writer or speaker rather than on formal textbook grammar.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage gives this example of notional agreement from Ecclesiastes: “time and chance happeneth to them all.” Here a compound subject (“time and chance”) takes a singular verb (“happeneth”).

And here’s one from a Jan. 20, 1938, letter by James Thurber: “I don’t think the barricades is an answer.”

Merriam-Webster’s has many more, but we’ll stop with this example from the Declaration of Independence:  “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.”

In the 18th century, the usage guide says, grammarians “undertook to prune the exuberant growth of English” and began insisting on formal agreement.

“Modern grammarians are not so insistent,” M-W says, noting that George O. Curme and Randolph Quirk have recognized that when compound nouns form a “collective idea” the “singular verb is appropriate—notional agreement prevails.”

Getting back to your question, we think of “mashed potatoes” as a dish, not the components of the dish. So we’d use “too much,” not “too many,” to modify “mashed potatoes.”

However, Google searches indicate that “too much mashed potatoes” is only slightly more popular than “too many mashed potatoes,” and “too much mashed potato” is a distant third. The expression “too much of the mashed potatoes” barely registers.

By the way, the earliest example of the dish in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy, a 1747 cookbook by Hannah Glasse:

“Mashed Potatoes. Boil your Potatoes, peel them, and put them into a saucepan, mash them well; To two Pounds of Potatoes put a Pint of Milk, a little salt; stir them well together, take care they do not stick to the bottom; then take a quarter of a pound of butter, stir it in, and serve it up.”

The OED’s entry, which is listed under the singular “mashed potato,” includes both singular and plural citations for the side dish.

Here’s a singular citation from the Guardian’s Oct. 15, 1994, weekend supplement: “My ribeye of beef with mashed potato.”

The entry also includes references to the dance (called the “mashed potato,” “mash potato,” or “mashed potatoes”) that was popular during the early 1960s.

The OED’s earliest citation for the dance is a 1959 reference to the James Brown song “(Do the) Mashed Potatoes,” which became a Top 10 rhythm-and-blues hit in 1960.

This one, from the March 6, 1963, issue of Punch, includes two other dance crazes from the ’60s: “The Mashed Potato … remains as much of a mystery as the Hully-Gully and the Loco-Motion.”

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