Hats and Shoes

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We’ve been talking about hats on Twitter. I noticed a little confusion about the relationship between “hats” and “caps.” Let’s talk about it here. (This is a pretty advanced vocabulary point, so don’t worry about it if you are a beginner.)

The basic word for something that covers your head is “hat.” It is the top-level category. A “category” is a group of things or people that are the same type.

Other category words include “animal” (cat, dog, mouse, etc.), “vehicle” (car, bus, truck, etc.), “dessert” (cake, chocolate mousse, ice cream, etc.), “cake” (chocolate cake, Black Forest cake, birthday cake, etc.). Most of these category words are generic–they just describe a group; they’re general. They are not specific (animal, vehicle, etc.).

But a few category words are different.
“Hat” can be general or specific. When it’s general, “HAT” is a first-level category word that means most kinds of things you wear on your head, including baseball caps, berets, cowboy hats, knit winter hats, fedoras, pirate hats, and so on. Let’s call that HAT for now to make it easier.

“Hat” is also a specific second-level word inside the main category. We’ll call this “hat.” A hat is a kind of HAT that has a brim (an edge) all the way around the edge. It is different from a cap. Therefore, some people may say they like caps, but they don’t like hats–and what they mean is hats.

Top hat by Black Country Museums - click for original Flickr page Green cap by Black Country Museums - click for original Flickr page
Two hats — or, one hat (left) and one cap (right)

Generally, though, if someone asks “Do you like hats?” you can guess that they mean HAT — it’s probably a top-level category question.

(ADDITION: I think we tend to use “hat” more often, unless we need to use “cap” for a reason. English learners may have been taught that the difference is very important. However, that’s really not how most English speakers that I know use the words. We just say “hat” much more often! Take a look at Flickr: 1, 2. As you can see, many of these are caps, but they’re labeled “hat.”)

“Shoes” is another word that’s the same way. SHOES means all kinds of footwear (boots, sandals, high heels, etc.)–the general category. But it also means basic shoes, specifically (let’s say shoes)–not sandals or boots, which are special kinds of shoes.

My husband and I once had an argument when we were packing for a trip, because I said “Can you give me my shoes?”
He gave me my sandals, because they were close to him.
I said “If I had wanted my sandals, I would have asked for them. I asked for my shoes!” (Regular, closed-toe, not open shoes!)
But he said “Sandals are shoes too!”
Well, I was thinking “shoes” and he was thinking “SHOES” … we were both right. I guess I should have been more specific by saying “My black walking shoes” or something.

But again, if someone asks “Do you have a lot of shoes?” and you own a lot of boots and sandals, you should definitely say “Yes!” Their question is clearly general (SHOES).