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Concourse 2

Classifiers and partitives


This is an area that causes problems for learners in three ways:

  1. in understanding that English is, in general, a non-classifying language
  2. in applying the correct partitives
  3. in distinguishing classifiers from standard adjectives and applying the rules


Counting things

In general, European languages do not use classifiers for all nouns but other languages are different.  In particular, East Asian languages, including Chinese languages, Japanese, Burmese and Korean, for example, require a counter or classifier when referring to nouns.
Japanese is our example here but many other languages have similar systems.  Japanese has a very significant number of classifiers (also known as counters) for particular types of noun which must be inserted before the noun:

In English In Japanese
five pencils five (cylindrical-objects classifier) pencils
three dogs three (animal-classifier) dogs
two chickens two (bird-like-classifier) chickens
three children three (people-classifier) children
six cars six (mechanical-objects classifier) cars
three shirts three (flat-objects classifier) shirts 

and so on for literally hundreds of types of objects including buildings of various sorts, time periods etc.
English, in common with most European languages, does not do this and that can cause problems for learners from certain language backgrounds (as well, of course, for learners with European language backgrounds trying to acquire languages which use counters).


Counting the uncountable: using partitives

a loaf, a pat, a cup and a portion  

Clearly, English is not so sophisticated but certain classifiers are used (although we don't usually call them by that name; they are generally analysed as partitives).  The usual way to use partitives in English is to make the uncountable countable.  What we do is use a specific or general term (the partitive) + of + the mass noun.  The partitive can then be made plural.
For example:
    An item of furniture (a general partitive)
    Two rashers of bacon (a specific partitive)
    Three strips of land (a specific partitive)
    Some heaps of junk (a general partitive)
What we call here specific partitives are sometimes referred to as typical partitives because they are typical to the nouns they modify.

Here are some more examples:
Type of thing Partitive
rectangular blocks bar: chocolate, soap, metals (especially gold) etc.
liquids a range of measures including, pint, cup, glass etc.
thin sections slice, sliver: cake, bread, pizza etc.
cuboids block: ice, concrete, tables, buildings etc.
irregular shapes lump: coal, concrete, metal etc.
flat materials sheet: paper, glass etc.
abstract nouns item: information, advice, work, evidence, news etc.
small things grain: rice, sand, grit etc.

It is tempting to have a clear distinction between general partitives which can be used for almost any mass noun to make it countable and typical or specific partitives for particular nouns which form memorable chunks in themselves or at least qualify as strong collocations.  Reality is slightly more complicated and we actually have a cline from general partitives, usable with almost any mass noun, and very specific, restricted partitives which are confined to a single (or very limited range) of nouns.  It looks like this:

piece of
bit of
item of
touch of
act of
ball of
bar of
case of
cloud of
coat of
dab of
drop of
flash of
game of
grain of 
jar of
lump of
measures (pint, meter, acre etc.)
plate of
sheet of
slice of
speck of
work of
rasher (of bacon)
blade (of grass)
loaf (of bread)
pat (of butter)
ear (of cereal crop)
clove (of garlic)
pane (of glass)
lock (of hair)
glimmer (of light)
scoop (of ice-cream)
gust (of wind)

In the restricted partitive column belong a number of metaphorical idioms (clichés, if you prefer) such as:
    pang of hunger / guilt
    torrent of abuse
    scrap of difference
    article of faith
    peal of laughter / bells
    glimmer of hope / life
    stroke of luck
The problem for learners is obvious.  Apart from the general partitives which can be used with almost any mass noun:

  • the restricted partitives have to be learned as language chunks and
  • the typical partitives have to be associated with certain types of noun only

Like this:

Partitive + Nouns
act of abstract behaviours: kindness, stupidity, meanness, war etc.
ball of lines: string, wool, thread, elastic bands etc.
bar of things sold in regular blocks: soap, chocolate etc.
case of abstract actions: stupidity, dishonesty, mistaken identity etc.
cloud of gases, chemicals etc.: dust, smoke, poison, fumes etc.
coat of coverings: paint, cement, varnish etc.
dab of
drop of
liquids: perfume, oil, paint, grease, blood etc.
flash of lights and colours: light, green etc.
game of games and sports: chess, cricket, tennis etc.
grain of small pieces of material: dust, salt, sand, sugar etc. 
jar of things kept in glass containers: jam, cream, marmalade, pickles etc. 
lump of irregularly shaped materials: coal, concrete, iron etc. 
measures specific ones for length, square measures, liquids etc.: gallon, mile, hectare etc.
plate of
sheet of
thin materials: glass, paper, ice etc.
portion of  all types of food: vegetables, meat, fish etc.
reel of long, thin materials: cotton, string, tape etc.
roll of flexible materials which can be made cylindrical: wallpaper, sticky tape, leather etc.
slice of certain types of food: cake, pizza, bread, sausage, banana etc. 
speck of very small amounts of materials: dust, dirt, ink, paint
work of cultural nouns: literature, art, fiction, genius etc.

This is not an easy area for learners of the language by any means.
  • Restricted partitives which collocate with a single noun or two are best treated as language chunks.  A rasher of bacon, for example, uses a partitive which cannot be applied to any other noun.
  • Typical partitives need a slightly different approach because there are notions attached to them of, e.g., flatness and thinness (slice, plate, sheet), size (speck, grain), shape (lump, bar) and container (jar, box, bottle).
    We need to help learners to notice these generalities and that can only be done by explicitly mentioning the typical partitive when introducing the mass noun.  There's little point in knowing the word soap if you can't talk about a bar of soap.


Classifiers and epithets

a solitary oak tree  

If you have followed the guide to either adjectives or pre-modification of noun phrases, you have encountered the distinction between an adjective proper, an epithet, and a classifying pre-modifier.
An adjective, whether gradable or not, describes the noun; a classifier categorises it.
This use of the term classifier is different from the use above of a counter token (as exemplified by Japanese) and does refer to English and other European languages.
For example:

  • a solitary tree describes the tree, not its type
  • an oak tree classifies the tree and distinguishes it from other types of tree

Classifiers are, therefore, indications of a subclass of the thing in question.  If you familiar with the term hyponymy, this is superficially straightforward.  For example, there are no prizes for spotting the odd one out in this diagram:


It simple to tell that fast car is not a type of car; it is a description of a car.  Fast is an adjective, the others are classifiers.  The simple test is to try to modify the word with an adverb or make a comparative form.  If that can be done, we are dealing with an adjective and if it cannot, we are dealing with a classifier.
We can have, therefore:
    an amazingly fast car
    a sadly solitary tree
    a more solitary tree
    a very lonely man

but not
    *a very sports car
    *a slightly oak tree

    *an oaker tree
and so on.
Unfortunately, some adjectives also resist modification and here the test loses its validity and we are left with a grey area.  For example, is the word dead in
    a dead tree
a classifier or an adjective?  It is clear that we cannot have
    *a slightly dead tree
    *a deader tree

etc. because the adjective resists grading,
but if we accept
    a very dead tree
    a completely dead tree
then we are dealing with an adjective proper.  Similar considerations apply to adjectives such as unique, and more unique is regularly heard.
A supplementary test is to use the word predicatively.  We can have
    the tree was solitary
    the man appeared very lonely

but clearly not
    *the car was sports
    *the tree seemed oak

Even this test is not completely secure because words like flightless and waterproof are used both ways with subtle differences in meaning:
    a flightless bird (classifier)
    the bird is flightless (adjective describing this particular bird)
    a waterproof coat (classifying the type of coat)
    the coat was waterproof (describing the coat's quality)


Three types of classifiers

adjectives as classifiers
Some words can perform both the adjective and the classifying functions depending on the meaning intended.  For example:
    a senior officer
has the word senior acting as a simple adjective.  We can have more senior, very senior, most senior etc.
but in
    a senior teacher
the word is a classifier, categorising the teacher by job title and function and it makes no sense to refer to a more senior teacher, unless we are referring to the teacher's age or experience.
Equally, the word rural can perform both functions:
    a very rural setting (adjective)
    a rural issue (classifier)
participles as classifiers
Many adjectives are actually verb particles in disguise and act quite normally as adjectives.  For example:
    a very boring landscape
    an extremely frightened child
    an educated teacher
    a compelling film

and in these cases we can modify them and produce comparative or superlative forms so they are adjectives.
However, in
    a boring tool
    printed matter
    printing ink
    a framed picture

all the participles are classifiers.
(Whether the particles are adjectives or classifiers, the meaning distinction between the forms comes down to one of two factors:
a) -ing particles refer to role of the noun in effecting a process (a boring person, printing ink) but -ed particles refer to the noun being affected by the action (a bored listener, printed paper)
b) -ing particles refer to an action in progress (manufacturing industry, welding torch) but -ed particles refer to a finished action (a manufactured artefact, a welded pipe))
nouns as classifiers
These are the most frequent forms but they have their own issues:
a) They are less predictable in meaning: a spider web refers to something made by a spider but a paper airplane refers to something consisting of paper.  Some knowledge of the world is required to understand what is meant in many cases.
b) Noun classifier + Noun structures blur imperceptibly into compound nouns:
It is clear that, e.g., earthquake is a true compound with the subject as its head (it is the earth that quakes).  Other examples are less clear:
town planner is often seen as a compound but garden planner seems more easily analysed as a Noun classifier + Noun.
The fuzziness of the borderline between Noun classifier + Noun and true compounds causes problems of course, not least because compound nouns are usually stressed on the first item and the Noun classifier + Noun structure is variably stressed.  There is a guide to compounding on this site.
c) Noun classifiers are irregularly marked for number: we have
    a saloon car
    a sports car
    a sports bag
    a camera bag
    a complaint form
    a complaints department
and so on.
The way to bet is that they are singular so we have model car collection, portrait gallery, landscape photography and so on.  Learners who do not have parallel structures in their first languages will often be tempted to make all noun classifiers plural.



English is a right-headed language in the formation of noun phrases.  The headword in the compound lies to the right as in, e.g., taxi driver where taxi classifies the type of driver.  In that phrase, driver is the Head.  Many related, especially Germanic, languages follow the same pattern of right-headedness as does, e.g., Basque (taxi gidaria), Turkish (taksi sürücüsü), Dutch (taxi chauffeur), Danish (taxachauffør), Swedish (taxichaufför) and many other languages.
Some right-headed languages also agglutinate, forming words by affixation, so in Finnish, a taxi driver is a taksikuski and in German, a Taxifahrer.

Other languages do things differently.
In left-headed languages someone who drives a taxi is not a taxi chauffeur but a chauffeur de taxi (French) or a shofer taksie (Albanian), řidič taxíku (Czech), водитель такси (Russian), sewwieq tat-taxi (Maltese, a Semitic language), sofer de taxi (Romanian) etc.  In French, a postage stamp is a timbre-poste, in Polish a znaczek Pocztowy and in Romanian a timbru poștal (stamp postage in all cases).  Other left-headed languages include Vietnamese and Welsh, in which taxi driver translates as gyrrwr tacsi, and postage stamp as stamp post, incidentally.
To complicate matters, some languages, particularly Slavic ones such as Polish and Russian, will place the adjective before the noun but choose to place a classifier after the noun.  So we have, e.g., big house but old player record.  In Polish, for example, large postage stamp translates as duża znaczka pocztowa (literally large stamp postage).

Many languages avoid classifiers and will use a kind of genitive structure (a driver of buses, a stamp of postage etc.) or simply supply a different ending for someone who does something (as English can with gardener, teacher etc.) but, instead of deriving the person from the verb, they will derive the person from the noun and have taxista (Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Galician etc.) or tassista (Italian).

Summary of the analysis

Here's the cut-out-and-keep summary:

There's a short matching test to see if you have remembered this classification and can match the terms to examples.


Problems for learners

All of the above should have convinced you that this is not at all an easy area for learners.
Using the wrong partitive or classifier or failing to recognise right-headedness will rarely result in communicative breakdown because a sympathetic native speaker will be able mentally to correct the utterance but learners who cannot handle partitives and classifiers will often sound unnatural and what they say will be recognisably non-English.
For example, all the following, while not all grammatically wrong or overtly flawed are unnatural to most people's ears:
    a lump of information
    a sliver of bacon
    a chair of the office
    the airport of the city
    a block of coal
    a pane of plastic

If natural production is the aim, especially above early levels, this area needs attention.
Here are some more ideas of what the problems might stem from and some simple ways to deal with them:

  1. Partitives:
    1. Learners from certain language backgrounds may expect to be able to translate the counter classifiers from their first languages and be confused that English does not have separate classifiers for the same categories (animals, people, flat things etc.) that their first language uses.
      Simply making them aware of this with a little comparative language work can usually solve the problem and these learners will, of course, not be strangers to the idea of typical partitives.
    2. Learners with European languages as their first language may have difficulty applying the right partitives because languages differ in the categories which are applied.  Many languages have far fewer of these and rely on general partitives such as piece, item or bit.  Learners from these languages may well over-generalise and apply the wrong partitives, producing, for example, *a lump of paint when speck or dab is meant.
    3. Teaching the general partitives will help, especially at the beginning but as they progress learners will need to apply the typical partitives for substances they know or they might not realise that there is a difference between a bit of glass and a pane of glass.
    4. Teaching the restricted items as lexical chunks helps (because there are no easily acquired rules) and, when introducing the terms for substances or dealing with mass nouns, providing the collocating partitive then and there will be useful because it is more difficult to apply the categories later.
    5. Problematizing the issue helps because learners may not be aware that there is something worth learning in this respect.  For example, getting learners to make a sketch of
          a bit of glass
          a pane of glass
          a lump of cake
          a slice of cake
          a bit of string
          a ball of string

      etc. may alert them to the need to notice the language and the notions it encodes.
      Abstract ideas are trickier to deal with but providing or eliciting examples of the differences between, e.g.:
          a bit of kindness
          an act of kindness
          a stroke of genius
          a work of genius
          a case of dishonesty
          a bit of dishonesty

      etc. will pay dividends in alerting the learners to the shades of meaning.
  2. Classifiers vs. epithets:
    1. Again, languages differ and many will avoid the use of a pre-modifying classifier and use a genitive structure instead as we saw above.  Speakers of Greek or French, for example, may be tempted to say the driver of the bus or the bus's driver which, while not obviously wrong, are much less natural than the bus driver.  Because such expressions are unnatural rather than patently wrong, there is a temptation to ignore them.  That's a mistake.
      This needs careful handling and some comparative language work can pay dividends in getting learners to notice the differences between their language and English.
    2. Headedness is another issue which can be handled with comparative language work but to be able to do that well, you need to be aware of the characteristic(s) of your learners' language(s).  Headedness applies to more than classifiers and adjectives of course but the forms are parallel.
      To help:
      Right-headed Left headed
      English and most Germanic languages
      Scandinavian languages
      Japanese, Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese
      Turkish, Basque
      Most Indian languages
      Italic languages (French, Italian, Spanish etc.)
      Slavic languages and Albanian
      South-East Asian languages (Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese etc.)
      Celtic languages
      Most African languages
    3. Selecting an adjective or a noun classifier is almost wholly idiomatic in English and, like other idioms, they are best treated as chunks.  There are no overt rules to follow.  For example, we can have:
      1. urban expansion but not *town expansion
      2. the art exhibition but not *the artistic exhibition
      3. a grammatical mistake and a grammar mistake
      4. a science journal, a scientific journal but not *a science conference
      5. economic growth and political crisis but not *economy growth or *politics crisis
      6. country dancing but countryside management but not *country management


The 5-point summary

  1. Raise awareness of the non-classifying nature of English at early stages.
  2. Teach general partitives such as piece, item and bit of early along with terms such as a little of ..., lots of ..., some etc.
  3. Make sure you introduce the appropriate general, typical or restricted partitive(s) when your learners encounter a new mass noun.
  4. Teach restricted partitives along with the noun as a language chunk: you can't have a pane of anything but glass, for example, so a pane of glass can be treated as a single lexeme.
  5. Allow learners to notice the commonalities of typical partitives with the notions of flatness, shape, size, containers etc. by explicitly focusing on them, problematizing the issue and presenting language in an orderly fashion.

Related guides
adjectives a guide to the word class with more on epithets vs. classifiers
compounding a guide to a closely related area
In the learners' section of this site, there are:
general partitives a short lesson at B1 / B2 level
restricted partitives an exercise at C1 / C2 level
common partitives a short lesson at A1 / A2 level