I'm learning TOEFL recently, and today I stumbled on this sentence from TPO 47:

There was a town that passed a law that banned the sale of a certain kind of soap. There was an ingredient in this soap that was harmful for the environment. ...People went and bought a whole lot of this particular soap.

It doesn't make sense to me that people bought "a whole lot of this particular soap." From my point of view, since soap is a countable noun, it should be "a lot of soaps." So what's going on here?

  • Am I the only one feeling uncomfortable about "a whole lot"? It feels gratingly informal, or the more literal reading "a complete shipment" seems too precise and implies only a single shop selling it.
    – Ken Y-N
    Aug 29, 2022 at 5:43
  • Re "stumbled on": Do you mean stumbled upon (not a rhetorical question)? Aug 29, 2022 at 10:35

4 Answers 4


The answer is simpler than you think: soap is uncountable.

In English, soap is conceptually a mass, a lump of homogenous material, which is typically not a countable noun.

However, many mass nouns, if not all, can be made count by

  1. treating the plural as units of the thing (bars of soap). For example, if you "drink three beers", that means three bottles / cans of beer.

  2. treating the plural as "types" of the thing (brands of soap). For example, if you "use three soaps", that suggests three different types of soap, not three bars of soap.

So you might have encountered plural "soaps" somewhere, but it would be one of the above cases.

As Michael notes in a comment, you could also read it as an ellipsis for "that brand of soap" or "that kind of soap". I'm inclined to think he's right (otherwise "that soap" suggests some predefined quantity somewhere). But note that the resulting phrase "a lot of that brand of soap" is logically a metathesis of "a lot of soap of that brand", which brings us back to the uncountability of soap.

  • 1
    Thank you for your comments, Luke! The singular or the plural form can be really tricky for me. For example, I just met the sentence "Goats were one of the first animals to be domesticated." I just feel so uncomfortable about it that it essentially means goats were one animal?!
    – babeimi
    Aug 26, 2022 at 4:19
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    @babeimi Ha! Yeah, that's a good example. The sentence is interpretable and unsurprising, but it should really be "The goat was one of the first animals" or "Goats were among the first animals"! If I were proofreading it for publication, I would change it. Aug 26, 2022 at 4:29
  • 3
    "Goats were some of the first animals..." also sounds natural to me
    – Barmar
    Aug 26, 2022 at 13:30
  • 5
    I am inclined to believe that it's less about the uncountability of soap and more about point #2 -- each brand of soap is singular, and to me the phrasing strongly implies "a lot of this particular [brand of] soap" (or variety of, etc.) Aug 26, 2022 at 14:03
  • 4
    @Michael-sqlbot that follows from it being uncountable. Using plural forms of uncountable nouns for types of that noun is extremely productive (waters, soils, even airs etc). The first option of using it for a unit of the noun is much less productive (generally for consumable mass nouns that come in units which are used entirely in a single instance e.g. "a beer")
    – Tristan
    Aug 26, 2022 at 15:10

Soap is like water or butter: it’s a mass noun that does not take a count or quantity. In addition to Luke Sawczak’s answer, the way to count it is to count units of soap, for example:

  • “Six bars of soap” (also called “a six-pack of soap” when packaged together)
  • “120 grams of soap” (Americans would be more likely to use ounces here.)

Similarly: two glasses of water, a stick of butter, ten ounces of gold.

  • That being said, multiple glasses of water is common enough that you will often hear it shortened to just having water as plural, eg. American restaurants (at least in some regions). "We need 4 [ice] waters to table 5". or "We'd like some waters please" Similar to how bottles of beer will be shortened to beers.
    – eps
    Aug 26, 2022 at 22:45
  • @eps Yes. That’s more informal than beers. There’s also a more formal sense in which “the waters of the United States” are its coasts, rivers and lakes.
    – Davislor
    Aug 27, 2022 at 1:52
  • 2
    There's also the poetic "waters" as a synonym of "water" (he sailed on the waters of Georgian Bay), perhaps by analogy with "waves", or influenced by the KJV's rendering of the Hebrew word mayim, which has a built-in grammatical plural (cast your bread upon the waters)! Aug 27, 2022 at 13:28
  • 2
    @LukeSawczak The literary influence of the KJV is very significant, but we also could traverse “the sands,” “the snows,” “the deeps,” and so on, which also have uncountable singular forms
    – Davislor
    Aug 27, 2022 at 18:05
  • 1
    @nasch The Scottish river that flows through Edinburgh is officially "The Water of Leith" (Wikipedia, City guidebook, Conservation Trust, ...). Every rule has its exception. And of course, the water in the Water today will be completely different water next week. Aug 29, 2022 at 8:34

In this context the implied meaning is (in parentheses) as:

  • "particular (type of) soap"; or,
  • "particular (brand of) soap; or,
  • "particular (kind of) soap.

(N.B.: All of the above three expressions, whilst not 100% identical in meaning, are close enough in nuance to be interchangeable in colloquial speech).

The implied meaning in this excerpt, is set up for you in the previous sentence with "kind of"...

What's happening here, is that there is a change of meta-category from "this explicitly stated category of soap items" to "this specific instance of a soap item" back to "this specific category of soap items".


In addition to soap almost always being an uncountable noun, this particular soap must be singular, otherwise it would have to be these particular soaps (brands / fragrances / types, etc).

There was a town that passed a law that banned the sale of a certain kind of soap. There was an ingredient in this soap that was harmful for the environment. … People went and bought a whole lot of this particular soap.

I've marked all the singulars that are relevant to the word "soap" in bold, and the nearby ones that could be confusing in italics.

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