"I am probably the only person who wonders this," e-mails Barbara Harting, "but when and why did a cup of coffee become simply a coffee? Doesn't the liquid coffee have to be in something?"
But she is not the only person wondering. Reader Rick Gilberg of Swampscott, too, thinks that surely the proper request is for "some coffee" or "a cup of coffee." And there are rumblings on the Web: Is that singular coffee a British import, perhaps, or yet another sign of
Or maybe both, as the blogger Gastronaut theorized in a post last year: In tea-drinking England, he said "coffee is still not a commonly prepared beverage in the home," so the singular coffee-bar usage predominates. "The prototypical British coffee experience is single serving, paper cup."
British or home-brewed, however, a coffee is not a grammatical problem. Plenty of mass nouns -- particularly in the food realm -- are happy to function as count nouns when single servings are called for. You can drink six beers or consume mass quantities. Your waitress calls for two soups, two waters, three red wines. Food writers speak of shrimps and toasts.
And a coffee, though it may be gaining popularity of late, is nothing new. The Oxford English Dictionary's earliest citations are from 20th-century fiction: A 1920 Katherine Mansfield story ("I'll have a coffee") and a 1938 Elizabeth Bowen novel ("Wait till the coffees come").
But Google Book Search quickly turns up earlier examples. There's the 1877 memoir by an Eton schoolboy: "Palley comes into my room and wants me to come to Brown's for a coffee and bun." And the 1891 handbook of Christian living, "A Present to Youths and Young Men," which puts quotes around the singular (and European) use: "A gentleman...strolled out to the open-air restaurant for 'a coffee.'"
The earliest citation I've found, though, is American, not British. William Dean Howells, who wrote "Venetian Life" (1866) after serving as American consul in Venice, tells of asking a poor traveler how much money he has. "He shows me three soldi. 'Enough for a coffee.'"
So you probably can't blame a coffee on the Brits. Starbucks is a more plausible target; it would be reasonable to suppose, as Gastronaut does, that the spread of coffee-bar culture is promoting the count-noun usage ("Let's grab a coffee") at the expense of the home-brewed mass noun ("Let's have some coffee").
Even if the count-noun tide is coming in, it's not going to swamp the mass-noun tradition. If a cup of coffee is your cup of tea, you can always order it your way.
. . .
ADVOCATING FOR TRADITION: "I looked it up to be sure," e-mailed John Hough Jr. last week, "and advocate is a transitive verb." Why did he want to point that out? Because of a line about Angela Davis in last week's Ideas section: "In 1972, the year that John Lennon's 'Angela' and the Rolling Stones' 'Sweet Black Angel' advocated for her release, she was exonerated."
If the verb is transitive, says Hough, "they could advocate her release, but not advocate for it."
Yes, advocate is still transitive in the dictionaries, and most of the time in print, too. But the verb has acquired a new use in recent decades; you may advocate changes in, say, adoption laws, but advocate for children, the beneficiaries of those changes.
It's true that this construction has infected general usage, so that "advocate for" is often used when "advocate" alone would suffice: "Security on Campus advocates for background checks of students," reported the Boston Herald last week. "As a private citizen, I advocated for dialogue" with Iran, said Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Syria. Like Hough, I'd prefer these without the superfluous preposition.
But advocate will hardly be the first switch-hitting verb. Do you baby-sit the twins, or baby-sit for them? Shop the Basement, or shop at the Basement? Graduate college, or graduate from college? A century ago, when approve of was new, Ambrose Bierce tsk-tsked: "There is no sense in making approve an intransitive verb."
And history, it turns out, has an even better defense for the intransitive advocate for: The verb was used intransitively in the mid-17th century, when it was new to English, says the OED. "I wonder that [my opponent] will advocate for their actions, so detrimental to the church."
History also reveals a different sort of attack on advocate. Ben Franklin, in a letter to Noah Webster, complained of several new verbs coined from nouns, among them advocate. Milton and Pepys and Burke had used it, but Franklin was unswayed. "If you should happen to be of my opinion with respect to these innovations," he wrote in 1789, "you will use your authority in reprobating them."
If he'd known what we know, he might have added: "For what it's worth."