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What is the difference between these sentences?

  1. She speaks an impeccable English.
  2. She speaks impeccable English.

I understand both are correct but is one simply more specific because of the indefinite article, "an"?

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    She speaks English impeccably. – Brad Werth Aug 16 '16 at 2:28
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    I question whether your understanding that both sentences are "correct" is accurate. While both sentences might be syntactically valid, you might be surprised to find that only one of them means what you think it means. – fabspro Aug 16 '16 at 13:01
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    "She speaks an impeccable English." ain't right. – Jeff Puckett Aug 16 '16 at 20:41
  • Could you define "English" in this case? Are you referring to the language, the accent, or the dialect? – corsiKa Aug 16 '16 at 21:52
  • A/An is the indefinite article, the is the definite. – Alan Carmack Aug 17 '16 at 1:26

10 Answers 10

29

Some words and phrases in English can be either countable or uncountable. The difference in meaning between the two is often subtle.

Sometimes the difference can shift us from a general concept to a specific. Like, "He drank water." He consumed a liquid and that liquid was water. "He drank a water." Now we're saying that he drink one of something. Probably one glass or bottle of water. In context it might be important that he drank one glass rather than an unspecified amount. Usually I think it wouldn't be, the difference would make no difference.

For your example, the normal way to express this idea is to say, "She speaks impeccable English", uncountable. Putting in "an" makes it one specific impeccable English. Interpretation always depends on context, but in most cases this wouldn't make any difference to the meaning. It only makes sense if you are thinking that there are different varieties of impeccable English. Perhaps you are distinguishing being impeccable American English and impeccable Australian English, or probably more likely, that "her" impeccable English is a little different from someone else's impeccable English.

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    "impeccable" is an adjective, which may be removed for the purpose of simplifying the sentence structure. It may help the OP to see that "She speaks English" is correct, while "She speaks an English" is typically not. – Keeta - reinstate Monica Aug 15 '16 at 18:25
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    WRT your last point, I once overheard a snippet of conversation: "Does he write English well?" "He writes... an English well." The person was Australian and tended to use slang terms in reports, though his grammar was good enough that I never noticed anything wrong. – Fund Monica's Lawsuit Aug 16 '16 at 1:12
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    I thought of it more along lines of "She plays a mean sax." – user66309 Aug 16 '16 at 2:04
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    @AlanCarmack As a native US speaker, I have never seen "English" used as a countable noun, ever. (As in BradC's answer.) I would interpret your example as poetic license (it doesn't sound completely wrong to my ear, probably because of the strict phrasing of the idiom), but I would have preferred the phrasing The way she speaks English is out of this world. – Mario Carneiro Aug 16 '16 at 8:36
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    @MarioCarneiro - one might say something like "she speaks an English of sorts, but it's not the English that I speak". However, talking about "an English" implies that there's something non-standard about the mode of speech being discussed, and is therefore unlikely to also be "impeccable". – Dawood says reinstate Monica Aug 16 '16 at 11:05
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I'm not going to tell you in absolute terms that #1 is never a valid sentence but I can still tell you that they are not going to mean the same thing. It is not the case that the first one is "more specific".

The answers so far have referred to countable nouns and trying to parse the sentence in terms of English dialects. I think the part about countable nouns is basically correct while I believe the focus on English dialects is misplaced. I suspect you are probably confused by hearing other statements like this one:

She makes a mean pot of chili.

He plays a fierce game of golf.

For the most part those are just more expressive ways to say:

She cooks good chili.

He plays golf well.

Those sentences both use an article but neither literally means a single, specific pot or a single, specific game. I'm sure this usage has a name and I will try to hunt it down.

Personally I think it would be a little odd to say:

She speaks an impeccable English. (X)

This could be a roundabout attempt at praising her English skill in the same kind of way as my examples about chili and golf. It makes a certain amount of sense but unfortunately I don't believe that construction works the same way for reasons that I can't quite pin down. Perhaps it's because pots of chili and games of golf are countable, completed one at a time, and speaking English is not something we discretely quantify. There are other possible interpretations like jokey language hack and high-brow pretentiousness that change the meaning in subtle ways that might not be understood by an English learner. Either way I wouldn't encourage you to use it.

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    +1 for "wouldn't encourage you to use it". Sure, we can make up hypothetical situations where the version with 'an' makes some sense, but the bottom line is, 99.99999% of the time, the version with 'an' is just a mistake. – Martha Aug 15 '16 at 21:42
  • Consider also 'She turns a good phrase', which is another way of saying 'She can speak well', as another example of the usage of the definite article that you describe here. – S. G. Aug 16 '16 at 18:04
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    I would interpret "an impeccable English" as indicating that one of the dialects that she speaks--not necessarily the one she speaks most often--is impeccable. – supercat Aug 16 '16 at 19:10
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The other answers are baffling me. As a native speaker of American English, #1 sounds absolutely wrong.

You don't speak "an English", so you can't speak "an impeccable English".

You speak "English", so "She speaks impeccable English" would be correct.

If you wanted to distinguish between different kinds of English (American, British, Australian, etc), I would use the term "dialects" or the phrase "dialects of English".

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    I am also a native speaker of American English, and I completely disagree with this answer. It is absolutely OK to say that someone speaks "an impeccable English." – Entbark Aug 16 '16 at 14:42
  • My friend from Jamaica speaks an English that is out of this world. – Alan Carmack Aug 17 '16 at 9:04
  • Sure, there are some constructs in which it makes sense. "She speaks an English I can hardly understand" is another one, or maybe "make me an English muffin" (kidding!). I'd still contend "she speaks impeccable English" is preferred over "she speaks an impeccable English". – BradC Aug 18 '16 at 13:39
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She speaks an impeccable English.

Concept A: Not all Englishes are the same, even within a particular dialect. We have our own idiolects.

Her English (the English she speaks) is impeccable.

Concept B: There is faulty English and there is faultless English.

The English that comes out of her mouth is of the faultless sort.

Impossible to say with any certainty whether A or B is in effect, without additional context, though it's probably B, since this sort of utterance is usually associated with B.

But all that we can say is that an implies the existence of more than one English.

Link 1, Link 2

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    I think that, given this is a learners' Q&A, it is worth pointing out that construction A is highly unusual and would be interpreted by most native speakers as a (very minor) mistake. – J Richard Snape Aug 16 '16 at 11:25
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    I'd say that it was a haughty expression used by language-snobs to describe the English as spoken by themselves and their compeers, who would look down their snoots at those who regard the expression as a grammatical error. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 16 '16 at 12:15
  • :D fair enough - I guess I should look out for people looking down their nose at my oikish naïveté! – J Richard Snape Aug 16 '16 at 23:05
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I believe the observation about countables is insightful and has some relevance, but is not the whole story.

The examples of other use cases for including articles are also helpful. I would add that in many cases, including the extra article creates a subtle element of humor because the usage is uncommon, albeit correct. The flavor of the humor is difficult to describe - I would recommend noting where you see the construct used to get a feel for it.

Of course much of interpretation depends on context, but my intuition of phrase #1 is that the speaker is being humorous by including the "an" and making the phrase similar to the other phrases. There is also extra humor in the fact that, unlike chili, games, etc., English is an abstract noun, and so quantifying it with "an" creates amusement.

In essence, because the "an" is not the typical usage, one can use it to flavor the statement and add nuance or humorous imagery. The imagery that comes to mind when hearing "She speaks an impeccable English" is the idea that the act of speaking a language is a discrete event - like a performance, rather than a natural course of events. So, while she speaks English well, hearing her speak it is like watching a performance that has a defined start and finish.

I believe your example has passed the threshold from speaking a language according to the correct laws and grammar of the language, to manipulating the language to create the ideas and nuances the speaker desires.

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    Wecome to ELL. Thank you for a very thoughtful first answer. We hope will have more to offer! – P. E. Dant Aug 16 '16 at 0:08
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"She speaks an impeccable English" is not referring to multiple variants of the English language. It's referring to English being one of many languages. Without context, I would assume she speaks more than one language with her English being "impeccable." The focus is more on her than on the language itself. That she speaks impeccable English - this is one of her attributes.

Without the article, I would assume she is not a native speaker of English but speaks it impeccably. The focus is on how her English is impeccable despite it not being her native language.

  • "Synecdoche", perhaps? – Dewi Morgan Aug 15 '16 at 21:22
  • I think Entbark and I are capturing a related idea (although I think he may have phrased it better) - that by including the article, the focus shifts to the impeccability of the woman's language ability. With the article, the impeccability becomes a thing of it's own, and not just a modifier of the language. – Gordon Bean Aug 17 '16 at 15:23
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The sentence "She speaks an impeccable English" would immediately lead me to wonder which English she speaks so well and why you wanted to emphasize it as distinct from any other form of English.

Perhaps you're trying to emphasize that she speaks (say) South African English well, but cannot easily be understood by a speaker of American English because of heavy use of particular idioms. (It would be unusual to call such heavily idiomatic use of speech impeccable though.)

If you simply meant that she speaks English well, you would not include the an; it implies something quite different.

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  1. She speaks an impeccable English.
  2. She speaks impeccable English.

First, note that an is the indefinite article, not the definite article, as you state in your question.

The difference between the sentences is that the first one uses English as a count noun and the second sentence uses English as a mass noun. The meaning of English is the same. It is just a matter of which noun category (count or mass) that English belongs to in each sentence. Two characteristics of a count noun are that (a) it can be used with the indefinite article a/an and (b) it can be used in the plural.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) states:

English

d. As a count noun: a variety of English used in a particular context or (now especially) a certain region of the world; (in the plural) regional varieties of English considered together, often in contradistinction to the concept of English as a language with a single standard or correct form.

and includes the following examples:

1978 J. Pride Communicative Needs in Learning & Use of Eng. 1 The role of literature in non-native Englishes may be focal.

1984 Eng. World-wide 5 248 An overview of some aspects of various Englishes suggesting areas of possible research.

2000 Independent (Nexis) 28 June 11 It was one of the first places to be settled in the Plantations; there's an English spoken there that's unique.

(emphasis mine)

Note the last sample usage uses an English. It talks about the kind of English spoken in the Plantations, as opposed to any other kind of English spoken anywhere else.

So, when we say an impeccable English, we are using English as a count noun and it is equivalent to an English that is impeccable. As the definition of English states, this would be in contradistinction to some other kind of English, as in a sloppy English or an error-filled English.

In Sentence 2, English is used as a mass noun. Here, impeccable also modifies English. And it can be contrasted to someone who speaks terrible English.

The meaning of English is the same in both sentences; it really is just a matter of how it is being used, as a count noun or a mass noun.

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In best way to phrase your statement would be, "Her English is impeccable." It would be inappropriate to use an article in your example, such as "an English or the English." The adjective impeccable should come after the word it describes. While this isn't a rule, it is commonly used in this way and therefore sounds most natural to native English speakers.

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    Huh? "She speaks impeccable English" is perfectly fine and sounds quite natural. – Zach Lipton Aug 16 '16 at 5:23
  • But this answer refers to "She speaks an impeccable English"? @ZachLipton – fabspro Aug 16 '16 at 13:05
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The focus of the replies seem to be directed to English and the various types of English. If you abstract from focussing on a particular language you can appreciate where it might be applicable.

Consider the following:

As a student of language she has been taught German and Spanish. However, she speaks an impeccable Arabic.

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