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I came across this sentence in an exercise:

  • [Blank] yogurt do you need?
    • Three cups.

The options for the blank are the following:

A. How long B. How far C. How many D. How much

The answer is D, but why is answered by "three cups"?

  • I've altered the question title here so as to make it more specific to your question. – Matt Oct 29 '13 at 10:17
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When you quantify a mass noun, you need to use a count noun to do it.

How much fruit did you get? Three pieces of fruit.
How much gasoline does your tank hold? Fifty liters of gasoline.
How much sugar do you take in your coffee? Two cubes of sugar.
How much ice cream should I get you? Three scoops of ice cream.
How much rice do you have? Half a cup of rice (or 3600 grains of rice).
How much corn? Ten ears of corn (or 70 kernels of corn).
How much garlic? Five cloves of garlic (or one bulb of garlic).
How much rain? Twenty drops of rain (or three inches of rain, or forty days of rain).

So "three cups of yogurt" is a perfectly normal phrase in English. Here, a cup is probably a unit of measure used in America equal to approximately 1/4 liter.

Note that some mass nouns require rather specific count nouns (e.g. "ears of corn") to quantify them.

  • 1
    Note that "cattle" doesn't belong here. While head is commonly used as a "unit" of cattle, it's also perfectly fine to speak of four cattle, and the question How many is a giveaway. – chrylis -on strike- Oct 18 '13 at 4:34
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    @chrylis: I think that "head of cattle" is likely to be an expression left over from a time when "cattle" was a real mass noun; that is, "four cattle" may not have been used in some regions and times. Compare with pieces of cannon. But you're right; "four cattle" is fine today. I have replaced "cattle" with some other mass nouns in my answer. – Peter Shor Oct 18 '13 at 14:48
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Yogurt in this case is treated as a mass noun, like many English words referring to a bulk product. (Yogurts is a word, but it refers to a collection of different types or containers of yogurt.) You're correct that the answer is D, because mass nouns are uncountable, and how much is used for measured amounts.

Three cups is simply a measurement of volume (about 0.7 liter), and when mass nouns of physical objects are quantified, it's usually by either volume or mass (weight).

  • The explanation in Collins Cobuild Dictionary about Yogurt is: Yogurt is a food in the form of a thick, slightly sour liquid that is made by adding bacteria to milk. A yogurt is a small pot of yogurt. – user48070 Oct 18 '13 at 2:46
  • Yogurt is treated as a mass noun, it should be uncountable, but why can we use the expression " a yogurt " ? – user48070 Oct 18 '13 at 2:48
  • @user48070 Edited slightly. Many mass nouns that refer to semi-continuous physical objects can be used as countable nouns if you're discussing either types or servings of the object. As the CCD mentioned, a yogurt (countable) is a single serving of yogurt (uncountable). – chrylis -on strike- Oct 18 '13 at 3:03
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I would like to answer the OP's question left as a comment but I will also tie it in with the main question.

Yogurt is treated as a mass noun, it should be uncountable, but why can we use the expression " a yogurt "

If you were to pour a large pot of yoghurt on a flat surface such as a plate, it would be very difficult to quantify. Yoghurt doesn't separate itself, it's one entire mass and hence it (the yoghurt) is recognizable as being singular. In order to quantify this thick sloppy substance you might say; there's a lot of yoghurt on the plate; that's quite a bit; the plate is almost full etc. But plates come in different sizes and what is a lot for one person, is "normal" for another. You could however take a cup and proceed to fill it. The number of filled cups is the quantity of the yoghurt, e.g. three cups.

Luckily, yoghurt is sold in standard-sized pots, and not in cups. A single pot is enough to contain 150g of yoghurt. A large yoghurt pot will usually contain 500g. Pots are countable, we can buy one pot of yoghurt or two pots. Hence

  • one / a pot of yoghurt
  • two pots of yoghurt

Note that the word, yoghurt, is singular and it will remain in the singular regardless of the number of pots:
"I'd like fifty pots of strawberry yoghurt" The British and Americans being two populations famed for their love of brevity and taking short-cuts will simply say

  • "a yoghurt"
  • "two yoghurts"

The meaning therefore is clear, unambiguous and also grammatical.

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    On a related note, just the other day I referred to two one-pound packages of ground beef as two beefs. The person I was talking to knew what I meant, so it was okay, though of course it was non-standard. A third person who was present was, for some reason, very amused by me saying two beefs. – snailcar Oct 18 '13 at 7:29
  • Maybe "beef" is slang for something... I'll look into it. :) – Mari-Lou A Oct 18 '13 at 7:34
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    @snailboat Clearly the third person had a beef with that mode of expression. – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 18 '13 at 11:08

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