Sunday, 17 March 2013

On an uncountability

A correspondent writes about the use of the indefinite article before uncountable nouns. He has read (in the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary) that they are 'used before uncountable nouns when these have an adjective in front of them, or phrase following them', and he cites as examples a good knowledge of French and a sadness that won't go away. He is surprised, as he had been taught that a cannot be used before uncountables, and he asks if it's always the case that the indefinite article can be used with uncountables if an adjective is present.

No, in short. But this is one of those cases where grammarians hedge. The big Quirk grammar says, at the relevant point (5.59) 'The conditions under which a/an occurs in such cases are unclear'.

Indeed they are. One of the problems is that many nouns in English can be either countable or uncountable, as in cake/a cake, coffee/a coffee, a tobacco (meaning 'a type of tobacco'), and so on. Here we are talking about nouns which are rarely if ever thought of as countable.

Quirk et al say two factors are relevant. Fist, there's likely to be a personal theme. The noun must refer to a quality or other abstraction which is attributed to a person. One of their examples is:

Mavis had a good education.

Nothing wrong with that. And we can talk about such qualities as annoyance, togetherness, and generosity in this way:

The late arrival of the train was a real annoyance.
John and Mary display a charming togetherness.
That's what I call a generosity of spirit.

But we can't do this with, say, progress, heraldry, and shoplifting:

*We made an important progress.
*I looked at an interesting heraldry.
*That was a shoplifting I disapprove of.

The other point Quirk et al make is that, the greater the amount of premodification or postmodification, the more likely we will find the indefinite article. So, to develop their example:

She played the oboe with sensitivity.
*She played the oboe with a sensitivity.
She played the oboe with a great sensitivity.
She played the oboe with a great and engaging sensitivity.
She played the oboe with a sensitivity that delighted the critics.
She played the oboe with a great and engaging sensitivity that delighted the critics.

The more we pre/postmodify, the more we allow the particularising function of the indefinite article to operate.

Having said all that, I'm not entirely sure which uncountables follow these trends. The semantic criterion (personal attribution) is inevitably a bit fuzzy. Is plagiarism included, for example? Would you accept The teacher discovered a fresh plagiarism? I think there might be quite a lot of divided usage here.


John Cowan said...

It is what I call a vibrissae-twitcher; that is, I would be uncomfortable, and would change it to "an instance/act of plagiarism" if I had written it myself, but I wouldn't change it in someone else's copy. And yet "a malapropism" is perfectly standard.

Sarah said...

There is a fascinating uncertainty about this usage.

Dierk Haasis said...

I'd say all of the instances where the article is possible, even necessary, are of the type 'a type of [uncountable]'. The modifier makes it clear that we do not talk about the general - hence uncountable - concept but a rather specific form of it.

DC said...

I don't think it helps much to say that, for example, 'a great sensitivity' is a 'type' of 'sensitivity'. On that basis, all adjectives and relative clauses would have to be thought of as 'types', and the useful specificity of the term would be lost.

TonyTheProf said...

"it marks an important progress on the research"

Law on Tax Management: an important progress in management of state budget collection

Alexander Bochkov said...

Re: plagiarism, I've done some research and here are some most interesting examples I've been able to find:

"The forgery — perhaps more accurately a plagiarism — was The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and it had been used to justify the murders of millions of Jews in Russia and Nazi Germany." (The Times, March 2, 2005)

"Quite exceptionally, he issues a warning of “bathos” over a sticky patch in La Fin de Satan; more typically, not an eyebrow moves as he carefully analyses a plagiarism in La Legende des siecles [...]." (The Sunday Times, August 13, 1999)

"In this high-cultural hall of mirrors, with its pre-reflections of Borges and Calvino, it turns out that each of Waring’s books was a plagiarism." (TLS, January 27, 2006)

However, it would seem that plagiarism used as a countable noun (singular) is rather rare - I found one example in the BNC only:

"FEU 1779 In the air-conditioned House of Commons, set in the English climate, and with the long recess allowing members to look for long hot beaches, such a plagiarism illustrated how not to employ catch-phrases of the day."

The plural form "plagiarisms" is slightly more common though (COCA: 7 occurrences, BNC - 3).

I also searched COCA and BNC for "adj.ALL plagiarism" - I've been unable to find occurrences of "a+ADJ.+plagiarism".

DC said...

Lovely examples. Thanks. Shows the value of corpus research.

Greyhound said...

I think the difficulty here is that devising an all-encompassing set of rules is much like herding cats. Even the examples given for words which cannot take "a/an + adjective" (progress, heraldry and shoplifting) can be tweaked and twitched to fit the mold: "Is the progress being made in the area of genetically modified foods in fact a rash(sort of) progress which we might someday regret?"; "Body modification, such as tattooing, can be seen as a personal heraldry (of sorts)"; "One could define plagiarism as an unprincipled shoplifting of words and ideas". The key seems to be in a matter of specification, whether personal or by the (implied) use of limiting language: a sort, form, type, instance, etc. In other cases, it might also mean "a particular manifestation of". It's different to say that someone played a long "with sadness" vs "a sadness that moved me to tears" ... meaning a particular or special sadness, and not the generic, garden variety. Perhaps that's why the additional "that moved me to tears" seems required to explain the exact specification being applied?

DC said...

Yes, contextual tweaking can make apparently unacceptable sentences acceptable. But this doesn't mean the basic rule or tendency is nugatory. There probably is some sort of principle which runs: the more one has to tweak to find an acceptable context, the more ungrammatical the original sentence is.

Greyhound said...

"There probably is some sort of principle which runs: the more one has to tweak to find an acceptable context, the more ungrammatical the original sentence is."

That's an interesting point, but would it apply to sentences in which this usage occurs spontaneously to the speaker/writer, rather than ones (like mine) that have been tweaked from an original, less grammatical example?

I wonder if it's simply a case of nuance - someone attempting to specify a particular instance of something generally thought to be generic and uncountable? The length of the qualifying phrases give the whole a more complex, or literary turn, akin to phrases like "a blind rage" or "a love supreme" ... perhaps it's just a case of "poetic license"?

Christopher Slater-Walker said...

On reading the examples, I had, and still have, the feeling that the normally-uncountable noun is closely connected with its particular context, even to the extent of its being contained within the object or person to which or to whom the noun applies. We could perhaps consider that the "uncountable" noun should be thought of as one whole and undivided thing.

If you're still following me, let me use this as an example:

Mavis had a good education.

Mavis's education is particular and unique to Mavis, and it makes no sense to think of Mavis's education outside of Mavis herself.

I think the same can be said of "The late arrival of the train" (it applies entirely and singly to one train); and also of "John and Mary display a charming togetherness" (which is particular and personal to them).

I'm not even sure how relevant this is; does it even help to define which usages are acceptable and those which are not? Why can't our progress be considered personal to us alone, for example?

Nevertheless I can't get rid of the feeling that the uncountable noun becomes a whole and somehow more concrete thing when it's used in a certain context.

Christopher Slater-Walker said...

If I were to say:

"Here in the United Kingdom, we practice a heraldry of particular distinction."

would that be wrong? I can't make my mind up.

DC said...

Another example of increasing acceptability with both pre-and post-modification.