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Mrs Weasley fussed over the state of his socks and tried to force him to eat fourth helpings at every meal.

The word "helping" is a countable noun, meaning a single portion of food taken at a meal. So, I might think four helpings at every meal seems to be more reasonable. On the other hand, usually the ordinal number is preceded by the definite article "the", like "the fourth helpings". Any thoughts?

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    Ordinals are commonly used when discussing helpings at mealtimes in Britain, especially school meals, where an extra helping can be called "seconds" or more formally "a second helping". She tried to make him eat "fourths", having already succeeded with seconds and thirds. Oct 25, 2018 at 13:56
  • The lack of a definite article is entirely appropriate. Oct 25, 2018 at 14:00
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    "Helping" is one of those weird words which must be in addition to the first serving. There is no such thing as "first helpings". As such, I think second/third/fourth helpings would tend to suggest "fourth of several helpings" and therefore plural. Though maybe this is just specious reasoning.
    – Neil
    Oct 25, 2018 at 14:21
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    @Neil I think in some circumstances such a wedding buffet or on a cruise ship it might be possible to say one was going for a first helping of food. Anticipating that with the abundance of food on offer and a large enough appetite you would go for more helpings later.
    – Sarriesfan
    Oct 25, 2018 at 21:08
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    I don't think any of the four proposed answers so far answer it. Conjecture: "fourth helpings" is a somewhat clarified version of "fourths", since "fourths" is fairly uncommon, relative to "thirds" and "seconds" which are very common and therefore clear. So the question becomes: why do we say "seconds" and "thirds" to mean "a second helping" and "a third helping"? My conjecture there is that it's simply a kind of contraction: "would you like second" sounds jarring due to number mismatch, so "would you like seconds" is used instead even though it doesn't quite make sense if you think about it.
    – Don Hatch
    Oct 26, 2018 at 2:01

4 Answers 4

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You are correct that "four helpings every meal" probably makes more sense. This particular use refers to the common idiomatic expression "second helping", meaning a second portion of whatever was served the first time around.

"Would anyone like a second helping?" Mom asked, standing over the table with a full plate of pancakes. We all yelled for more.

"Thirds" and "fourths" are also not uncommon when feeding hungry teenagers.

With this sentence the trick is to recognize that Rowling writes "at every meal", meaning there were multiple meals. At each of these meals Mrs. Weasley offered Harry "a fourth helping" (after, presumably, the first, second and third helpings) -- which, in the plural, becomes "fourth helpings"

(Edit) Just to add detail, the use of "fourths" add colorful imagery to the scene, where we can picture Mrs. Weasley insisting that Harry take seconds, then thirds, and then even more after that.

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    Can we understand this plural in a way that Mrs Weasley offered Harry a fourth helping a day, and since it's multiple days, therefore "fourth helpings at every meal". Does that sound reasonable?
    – dan
    Oct 25, 2018 at 14:36
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    @dan Yes, that's the general idea (although I would assume they ate three meals each day). It's still somewhat colloquial writing, but kids' books are often written in an informal style.
    – Andrew
    Oct 25, 2018 at 15:25
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    @dan I'm not sure I agree with Tᴚoɯɐuo here. But I could be wrong.
    – Andrew
    Oct 25, 2018 at 15:41
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    If it was "forced him to eat four helpings" it could (perhaps more likely would) mean that force was required for all four. But "forced him to eat fourth helpings" is consistent with the first three being entirely voluntary.
    – CCTO
    Oct 25, 2018 at 16:37
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    I wouldn't say one is more grammatical than the other; I would say they have different emphases. Helpings are countable (cardinal), but also generally occur in sequence (ordinal).
    – eques
    Oct 25, 2018 at 17:36
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I think that the expression is related to

second helping

A second portion of the same thing, usually of food; seconds; refill.
He had already eaten six sausages, but that did not stop him reaching for a second helping.

If we extrapolate a bit, we can conclude that Mrs Weasley was trying to force Harry to eat four times each dish served per meal: the original, the second helping, the third helping and the fourth helping. Remember that they think that he was starving before they rescue him from the Dursleys.

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  • It might be a bit diferent in this case. It put "fourth helpings", instead of "fourth helping".
    – dan
    Oct 25, 2018 at 14:12
  • @dan I think that the plural establishes that Mrs Weasley try to force Harry to have a fourth ending per dish served in a single meal. A fourth ending of soup or salad, a fourth ending of the main course and a fourth ending of dessert. That would make three fourth endings (plural) per meal.
    – RubioRic
    Oct 26, 2018 at 6:21
  • Yeah, that's a reasonable explanation. It seems that there are variety of interpretations for it so far. :) On the other hand, a helping might include everything already like salad, soup, main course, etc.
    – dan
    Oct 26, 2018 at 6:53
  • see this part from Andrew's answer: "the common idiomatic expression "second helping", meaning a second portion of whatever was served the first time around"
    – dan
    Oct 26, 2018 at 6:58
  • @dan Yes, you may be right if we are talking about a buffet. You can serve whatever you like in the second helping. But if you dinner in your home with your parents, did they serve all the dishes at the same time, including desserts?
    – RubioRic
    Oct 26, 2018 at 7:01
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Compare:

Would you like a second helping?

or

No second helpings! We are saving the rest of the cake for your cousins, who will be back from the game momentarily.

Without the article the ordinal is a determiner, here referring to a specific helping in the sequence of helpings.

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    "fourth helpings" is actually a singular noun, a name for that particular helping in a sequence of helpings. Compare matins. Fourth helpings was more than even he could manage.
    – TimR
    Oct 25, 2018 at 15:03
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    @eques did you look up matins in a couple of good dictionaries?
    – TimR
    Oct 25, 2018 at 17:31
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    @eques: I disagree. Compare also laud and plural lauds where plural lauds is the name for a particular service in a series of canonical hours, and takes a singular verb. Lauds is ... The analogy holds here with helpings which are established "canonical" parts of a meal.
    – TimR
    Oct 25, 2018 at 17:36
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    Perhaps you are missing my point. I'm not asking about "matins" or "lauds" as a service being a plural name in singular usage (in English). I'm asking why you are asserting that "fourth helpings" should be understood that way. You are in effect asserting that plural-as-singular-name is a productive function. But we have dinner not "have dinners" (usually) and we have dessert not have desserts.
    – eques
    Oct 25, 2018 at 17:38
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    I think you are missing my point about the canonical series. A name is being given to the canonical meal event, and that explains why there's no article and why an ostensibly plural noun can accept a singular verb.
    – TimR
    Oct 25, 2018 at 17:41
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I think the issue here is that the helpings are served sequentially, not concurrently.

If someone puts the equivalent of four servings of food on one large plate, it would be completely correct to describe that as "four helpings". However, if you are served one helping, eat it, and then get another one, the next one would be your "second helping"; if you eat that and get yet another, it would be your "third helping"; etc. Ordinal numbers are used because the helpings are served in an order, not all at once.

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  • You have a good point. Well, why is there no article 'the'? usually, we say: the first one, the second one, ... Why not say the second helping?
    – dan
    Oct 26, 2018 at 0:33

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