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Author Topic: Can the indefinite article a(n) be used with uncountable/abstract nouns?  (Read 9868 times)
English Maiden
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« on: June 21, 2011, 08:43:26 PM »

Hi, Joe!

I read the latest essay you posted in the Forum titled "A sorry trail of wasted words," and some parts of that essay brought me another confusion about the English language.

I always thought that uncountable/abstract nouns like jewelry, news, information, beauty, anger, etc. can't be preceded by the indefinite article a/an. But I recently read in an English grammar and usage book that uncountable nouns can occur with the indefinite article when they follow an adjective as with this sentence: "There's a terrible sadness in her eyes." Is this sentence correct? Can I also construct similar sentences with other uncountable nouns like information and scenery? But sentences like "I have an amazing news for you" and "I'll show you a very beautiful jewelry" don't sound and look right to me.

But you did use the indefinite article with some uncountable/abstract nouns in your essay. Here are the sentences I'm referring to:

Some stock phrases in English are inherently undesirable because they are too wordy and only tend to give a false depth and emphasis to what is being said.

Of course, the problem can be remedied by simply dropping the extraneous words in the repeater phrase, but we need to cultivate a strong sensitivity to the repetition that often hides so well in such phrases.

Your sentences seem all right to me, but the other examples I presented don't. Why is that? Aren't all the nouns I used in my examples and the ones you used in your essay in the same category? Please help me understand.
« Last Edit: June 22, 2011, 08:58:48 PM by English Maiden » Logged
Joe Carillo
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« Reply #1 on: June 22, 2011, 11:33:42 PM »

Yes, an indefinite article can be routinely used to precede an adjective that premodifies an uncountable noun denoting an emotion or state, as in the example you presented: “There’s a terrible sadness in her eyes.” Below are five more examples of that usage involving uncountable nouns denoting an emotion, condition, or state:

“There’s a certain magic in the way she sings.”
An enigmatic joy appeared on her face.”
“She always feigned a forceful laugh that irritated everyone.”
“He displayed such an open admiration that bordered on obsequiousness.”
“I could sense a brutal coldness in the way he looked at me.”

This usage, though, doesn’t generally apply to all uncountable nouns. In particular, it doesn’t apply to an uncountable noun that’s grammatically singular but notionally plural like “news”; indeed, this is the reason why this sentence construction you presented doesn’t work: “I have an amazing news for you.” Instead, we say “I have amazing news for you,” and, if more than just one news item are involved, we say “I have two amazing bits of news for you.” Or “I have some amazing news for you.” In the case of “jewelry,” it’s also an uncountable noun that’s grammatically singular but notionally plural, so we can’t say “I’ll show you a very beautiful jewelry.” Instead, we say “I’ll show you a very beautiful jewelry collection” or ““I’ll show you five pieces of very beautiful jewelry.” For uncountable nouns, the modes of modification will vary depending on the nature and particular attributes of the particular noun, and it’s not advisable to generalize on that mode of modification until the particular uncountable noun comes up for use in a sentence.

The uncountable nouns you cited from a previous Forum posting of mine are as follows: “depth,” “emphasis,” and “sensitivity.” “Depth,” a noun denoting state, can be grammatically and notionally singular, as in my use of it in the phrase “a false depth to what is being said.” However, it can also be used as a countable noun that’s notionally plural, as in this sentence using “depth” as a generic measure: “For technical reasons, this device won’t work at depths of 60 feet and 100 feet.” “Emphasis,” of course, is an abstract noun that’s singular both grammatically and notionally, so it can be modified with an adjective preceded by an indefinite pronoun as in that usage of mine, “a false emphasis to what is being said.” As to “sensitivity,” it’s another uncountable noun denoting state, so it can modified the way I did in that posting of mine: “a strong sensitivity to the repetition that often hides so well in such phrases.”

I hope this explanation has further heightened your understanding of how the various kinds of uncountable nouns can be modified properly.

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