"a little" means...?
June 11, 2017 8:21 AM   Subscribe

From "The Fallen Idol" by Green. On the nursery table he found his supper laid out:a glass of milk and a piece of bread and butter, a sweet biscuit, and a little cold Queen's pudding without the meringue. My question is what "a little " means here. 1) a little pudding 2) "a little cold"pudding 3) both 1) and 2) Well, I hear that "pudding" is countable in British English whereas uncountable in American English. Is it true? Anyway could you give me a tip? Thank you.
posted by mizukko to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I would interpret it as "a small amount of pudding" or "a pudding which is small". I'm a native AmE speaker; I think pudding can be countable or non-countable in both AmE and BrE depending on context, though countable puddings are more common in BrE.

You wouldn't modify "cold" with "little" in this context, but I have no idea why, being merely a speaker and not a student of language.
posted by mskyle at 8:29 AM on June 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

I read this as 'a little bit of' cold Queen's pudding.
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 8:30 AM on June 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'd parse that as "a small amount". My intuition seems backed up by the fact that queen's pudding is a wobbly sort of confection normally served out of a large baking dish.

Also, thinking it over, I'd say if you wanted to indicate a countable item you'd say "a small cold pudding;" small seem to carry the connotation of discrete in this context, whereas little indicates uncountable. "A small slice" vs "just give me a little of it".
posted by Diablevert at 8:33 AM on June 11, 2017

As a native BrE speaker, this could mean "I'll have a small portion of that" or "I'll have some". A lot of times mentioning an amount doesn't actually mean anything. It just means "I'm going to have it". Also pudding means dessert and is also a type of dessert but it's normal to just say "I'll have a little of something" or "I'm going to have some pudding".
posted by shesbenevolent at 8:50 AM on June 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

He is going to have a small amount of a dessert called Queen's pudding that is cold in temperature.
posted by jesourie at 8:58 AM on June 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

Pudding is countable in BrE when it refers to British-style puddings, such as Christmas puddings or Yorkshire puddings, but it can be a non-count noun as well, especially when it refers to the course. American-style pudding is a completely different food and is a non-count noun.
posted by betweenthebars at 9:02 AM on June 11, 2017

In American English (today anyway), "a little pudding" would usually mean a small amount of pudding. In general it's non-countable; you could have just a little bit of pudding or a lot of pudding. (Exception: If you were looking at an array of little cups, each containing pudding, you could say "I'll have a pudding" and point to one of them -- so it becomes countable in that case, as shorthand for "I'll have a cup of pudding".)

For Americans, pudding is a sweet substance of a creamy/custardy consistency. (There are a few common types: by far the most common is based on egg yolks, milk, and cornstarch; also rice pudding, tapioca pudding, a few more. But they're all something you'd scoop up with a ladle, they're not discrete items.)

In British English, pudding means something different -- it can mean any dessert, or a broad category of desserts, or a savory dish. A long detailed writeup at Separated by a Common Language.

The main point for our purposes is that British English calls a number of things "puddings" that American English would more likely call "cakes" -- for example figgy pudding (close to what Americans would call fruit cake) or Christmas pudding. These are countable, so you could have a little one or a big one. For a dessert like this, "a little pudding" could be used like "a small cake". I don't know if these puddings are ever prepared in individual serving-size units, though. If not, for one meal you'd still be served a little slice of Christmas pudding, where it's non-countable.

Looking at pictures of Queen's pudding, it's something that you'd serve with a ladle or scoop, and that suggests it's non-countable. So "a little Queen's pudding" would mean "a little portion of Queen's pudding", and it's served cold.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:03 AM on June 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

Pudding, like many other foods, may not "non-countable" in American English but it is quantifiable. You would not say you ate “six puddings” but you could say you ate “a helluva lot of pudding.”
posted by yclipse at 11:44 AM on June 11, 2017

Earlier in the story we see Mrs Baines making the pudding:

She was sour, but she liked making sweet things: one never had to complain of a lack of jam or plums; she ate well herself and added soft sugar to the meringue and the strawberry jam.

Queen's pudding (more commonly known as Queen of Puddings) is served hot from the oven, with meringue on top. Most people regard the meringue as the best bit. Mrs Baines certainly does:

Mrs Baines helped herself to some more meringue. [..] She skimmed the rest of the meringue off the pudding.

So when we read that Philip's supper consists of 'a little cold Queen's pudding without the meringue', we can tell he's being given the leftovers, presumably spooned out of the serving dish into a separate bowl. 'Little' = a small amount of pudding, because Mrs Baines has eaten most of it already.
posted by verstegan at 1:09 PM on June 11, 2017 [8 favorites]

I would also interpret "little" in that sentence to mean a small amount of Queen's pudding served cold, and if the the pudding was only slightly cold, I would expect to read something like, ". . . a sweet biscuit, and some Queen's pudding without the meringue, a little cold." or "some Queen's pudding, a little cold, without the meringue."
posted by layceepee at 5:36 PM on June 11, 2017

It's worth noting that there's a customary understatement that goes on at the time when talking about, in particular, amounts of food; you're not necessarily meant to understand that the amount of pudding was particularly small. 'A little' is more closely equivalent to 'some'.
posted by Acheman at 3:53 AM on June 12, 2017

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