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Subject: the article A
Question: Hello

I found the following information about the indefinite article
''a'' in Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary:

''used before uncountable nouns when these have an
adjective in front of them, or phrase following them. For
example:
* a good knowledge of French
* a sadness that won't go away

Well, here is my question: Honestly, I don't understand the
information. Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary says that
the indefinite article ''a'' is used before uncountable nouns
when these have an adjective in front of them. But, as far as
I know, the indefinite article ''a'' cannot be used in front of
uncountable nouns.

Does the information mean that we can ALWAYS use the
indefinite article ''a'' in front of uncountable nouns that have
an adjective in front of them? Is it a rule?

Please explain your reasons.

Thank you

Reply: We are all likely to agree on this one.

The usage of articles in English is complicated, and there is some choice. The rules of language are not so much rules as tendencies. Don't expect the rules to be rigid, as they would be in computer coding.

The indefinite article CAN be used before uncountable nouns in some circumstances. I think the reference to adjectives is confusing.

For example (I use * to show that something is unlikely):
(1)
He had judgment.
*He had a judgment.
He had good judgment.
*He had a good judgment.
(2)
He made judgment.
He made a judgment.
*He made good judgement.
He made a good judgment.

The first set tells is about a person's quality of judgment. It can't be countable. The second set suggest a judge giving a verdict in court and the meaning is countable (as we can see from "He made several judgments"). But without an adjective there does seem to be a choice of whether or not to have a determiner -- I would call this idiomatic.

It's harder to see with 'knowledge', which is very unlikely to be countable (you would usually have good knowledge of French and chemistry, rather than good *knowledges).

For a learner the safest rule in English is to say that a singular count noun must have a determiner of some kind, but some nouns that are usually uncountable can be treated as count nouns at times.

Anthea
Reply From: Anthea Fraser Gupta      click here to access email
 
Date: 25-Jul-2013
 
Other Replies:
  1. Re: the article A    Susan D Fischer     (24-Jul-2013)
  2. Re: the article A    Elizabeth J Pyatt     (25-Jul-2013)

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