Wednesday 12 December 2012

On giving advices

A correspondent writes to ask whether he can write advices instead of pieces of advice in a report.

Advice is certainly one of those uncountable nouns that's developing a renewed countable use in present-day English, along with researches, informations, and the like. What surprises people is to realise just how long-standing the countable usage is. In the case of advice, the OED has citations dating from the 15th century. ‘Getting good advices’ appears in one of William Caxton’s translations (1481). We are not talking downmarket usage here. The Duchess of Newcastle in 1664 talks about being ‘attentive to good advices’. And here’s Gibbon in 1796: ‘These are so many advices which it is easy to give, but difficult to follow.’

The examples continue right down to the present day, but the 18th century saw a shift away from the countable use when prescriptive writers took against it, preferring a partitive expression (such as piece of advice) - and also against other such nouns, such as information, which also had a long history of countable use (with citations from the 15th to the 18th century). Advices fell out of use in standard English, accordingly, but retained its identity in regional speech. The OED has some modern quotations, but they are all Caribbean and South Asian.

What seems to be happening is that the original instinct to use advice and the other words in both countable and uncountable ways is reasserting itself. People who have not been influenced by a prescriptive mindset in school are most likely to use it – which mainly means the millions learning English as a foreign language. Often the countable usage is reinforced by an analogous countability in a mother-tongue (as with informations in French). But it would be wrong to see the renewed plural use as solely an L2 phenomenon, as it is present in regional dialects, both national and (as the OED recognizes) international. I suspect it will become a standard usage again one day. In the case of informations there are signs of this already happening, in that the legal profession continues to use the plural form routinely in various special contexts. But advices isn’t standard yet, so in formal writing I would say stick with the partitive form for the time being.


Marcelo García Facal said...

Hi, David. Just something I'd like to add about the people learning a second language. In my experience (I've been studying English for 12 years and I started German this year), teachers of a foreign language are as prescriptivist as they come. I was taught the which/that nuisance and the countable use of uncountable nouns as something fixed and otherwise incorrect. After a hiatus from language learning, I resumed English in another city and since then I’ve met countless English teachers and translators (for I am one), all of whom teach or have been taught these shibboleths. Moreover, my translation school is definitely structuralist.
As for German, my teacher admitted there would be variations in pronunciation and structure (her being from the south of Germany), but that she would teach only the standard spoken in Berlin.
Then again, this is just my experience in two cities of one country in South America. Perhaps we should ask teachers of foreign languages.

Greetings from Argentina.

Ameen A. Al-Jaleeli said...

Thanks a bunch for your help, dear Professor. It is really interesting to read your feedback here.

Best Regards

Ameen A. Al-Jaleeli said...

Thanks a bunch for your help, dear Professor. It is really interesting to read your feedback here.

Best Regards

Jack Windsor Lewis said...

Hi Dave, ole buddy,
I wonder if yr readers'd like to see my fav'rite quote of a no longer countable noun — from Burns's great poem Tam O'Shanter:

Ah, gentle dames! it gars me greet,
To think how mony counsels sweet,
How mony lengthened sage advices,
The husband frae the wife despises!

(gars me greet = makes me weep)

DC said...

Thanks, Jack. A great quote, indeed.

Claudia said...

Does that mean I can stop sneering at the use of "informations" that I mostly find in (bad) translations of Italian tourist materials? But please don't tell me that the adjective "touristic" exists too or I shall faint! :-) I suppose it's true what Marcelo says, that we teachers of EFL are too prescriptive, but don't be too harsh on us. We have to try and give some certainties, while deep inside knowing that in language what is certain one day might change the next. Advices on how to best perform in our job are welcome! :-D

Andrew said...

The mighty R.E.M. (when they were good i.e. pre Warners) saw fit to entitle a song Good Advices many moons ago The only instance of the usage I've come across before today.

Astrid said...

This is interesting. However, I speak English as a foreign language and using words like advice and information in a countable form in English seems somehow "wrong" to me (although they are both countable in my first language).

David Crosbie said...


I can happily use the adjective touristic meaning 'in a style associated with tourists and tourism'. It's pejorative, normally spoken with a sneer. Personally, I would use it with irony and with care.

Judging by the OED online, it seems to have been a neutral word in the nineteenth century — along with another adjective touristical. Neither adjective seems to have survived into the twentieth century (not in writing, that is), but there have been examples of the adverb touristically. The most recent example is 'a tranquil location in a touristically rewarding area'.

Claudia said...

Thank you David,I didn't know!
However the translators I'm thinking about have no such effect in mind!

Unknown said...

It's a usage I'd never seen before...but then I'd never seen this blog before either, which is a ridiculous state of affairs, considering that there are seven DC books on my desk, beside the Open University materials for the English Language course I'm about to start...
I wonder how often a book picked up when bored in a train station leads to someone doing a degree...

Anonymous said...

Hello David,

I'm very glad to read this post, as it gives counterbalance to claims that international usages are 'new' vs. 'ENL' norms (I've come to realise that there is, in most cases, a frequency difference in linguistic behaviour at best, which is extremely hard to establish). It's great to know we can turn to you for a break from the idea of a rigid, timeless language-code more generally.

Marcelo: English teachers are employed to directly teach you English, so it's hard to see how prescriptive others are (experiencing prescriptivism is less likely in general conversation). Also, students do not enter classrooms empty vessels, instead some arrive with rather prescriptivist notions of their own language that get transposed onto learning an additional language. That being said, my experiences suggest you might be absolutely right in a great many cases!

I hope you had a wonderful new year (David, family, and all readers!).


Paul Wingrove said...

Rather surprised today to come across advices in P G Wodehouse story 'Lord Emsworth acts for the best':...'and at last advices was sitting up...'

cj said...

Thank you for another interesting post! I always learn something new, but this post was particularly timely because just last week I enjoyed reading that the Taiwanese tea shop near me (in Sydney, Australia) would like to get my 'feedbacks'.