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Performance

  1. [uncountable, countable] how well or badly you do something; how well or badly something works

the country’s economic performance

He criticized the recent poor performance of the company.

Profits continue to grow, with strong performances in South America and the Far East.

Her academic performance has been inconsistent.

Some nouns can be classified as both uncountable and countable. The above is an example taken from the Oxford dictionary.

Without a plural marker or an indefinite article, sometimes it's a bit difficult for me to decide which category a noun like performance belongs with. I'm not sure if the categories could bring nuances to the intended meaning.

Would a native speaker automatically classify them into different noun categories, or never pay attention to such dichotomy?

  • Where it is plural there is a reason for it: "in South America and the Far East". If conceptually there is reason to regard the noun in the plural, you are free to so so. The respective performances of Acme Inc and SuperCorp in the Pacific Rim have left stockholders less than delighted. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jun 18 '17 at 17:37
  • It's a fascinating question, and one that I (and I suspect most native speakers) have never considered. Yes, the decision is automatic, based upon context. In a sentence like "Her performance is superb," the noun could be uncountable (in reference to her job skills, for instance) or countable (in reference to her reading of a part in a theatrical production). – P. E. Dant Jun 18 '17 at 17:42
  • Could you add some specific examples? In your question, the first two examples use "the", and the third is clearly plural. You also might take a look at performance. – user3169 Jun 18 '17 at 20:33
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    @Tᴚoɯɐuo But sometimes it's more hard and essential for a non-native speaker to conceptually decide whether it is idiomatic to be free to do so. Besides, there are nouns that could never be classified as countable. Don't think it's an easy job for an ESL. :) – Kinzle B Jun 18 '17 at 21:15
  • @P.E.Dant That's a very good insight! I was hoping you could give an elaborated answer. :) – Kinzle B Jun 18 '17 at 21:17
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Decide whether you're speaking about one or multiple instances and go with it. That decision is logically prior to choosing the singular or plural noun to express the idea.

The J-class car has renowned performance.

J-class cars have raced in the Grand Prix for fifty years. The performances they've turned in have been uniformly excellent.

We accept sentences like the second one above because we understand the speaker is referring to multiple individual performances. That is not to say that you couldn't cast the second sentence in the singular:

J-class cars have raced in the Grand Prix for fifty years. Their performance has been excellent.

The abstraction permits a coalescence of the plural into a singular but does not demand it.

P.S. Even nouns which do not normally occur in the plural can be licitly pluralized if the meaning admits a plural.

Woolen sweaters are noted for their warmth. But there are different kinds of warmth. We can speak of warm colors, warm people, and being warm when getting close in a guessing game. So not all warmths can be measured with a thermometer.

We would understand the speaker to be taking liberties with the word, but that freedom is there to be taken when necessary.

  • Take "music" for example, I've never encountered "a music" or "musics". – Kinzle B Jun 19 '17 at 14:41
  • @KinzleB: books.google.com/… AND books.google.com/… The indefinite article and the plural are very well attested in musicological texts and texts about aesthetic theory. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jun 19 '17 at 18:07
  • True, language is flexible, but I don't think it's common usage. Otherwise we wouldn't need to create the concept of countability. "a piece of music", "sorts of music", or whatever canonical construction would work as well. – Kinzle B Jun 19 '17 at 21:46
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Personally, I don't agree on the word "performance" -- as well as many others -- being classified by dictionaries as countable or uncountable.

According to grammar books, uncountable, or non-count, nouns are those which will not take the indefinite article "a/n" and will take, instead, "some" or some partitive (a piece of, an item of, etc.). That is clearly not the case with "performance":

  • That has been an outstanding performance.

My impression has always been that dictionaries tend to confuse countable-uncountable with concrete-abstract. It is a fact that abstract nouns, which generally derive from verbs and adjectives, do not usually take the plural form, that is, unless we refer to instances of the concept conveyed by the noun.

P. E. Dant's example in his comment above provides us with an excellent example of this:

In a sentence like "Her performance is superb," the noun could be uncountable (in reference to her job skills, for instance) or countable (in reference to her reading of a part in a theatrical production).

My feeling is that, when we refer to her acting skills in general, we are using the abstract "performance", while the sense of the noun becomes concrete when reference is made to her specific acting on a particular occasion.

When used in a concrete sense, the noun will enable pluralization (different instances of performance), while it will be used in the singular form when used in a more abstract sense.

The fact that dictionaries usually confuse "abstract" with "uncountable" may stem from the considerable overlap between abstract and non-count, as recognized by Quirk on page 246 of his Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language:

Concrete vs. Abstract

My claim is that the fact that an abstract noun is generally used in the singular does not make it uncountable.

In reply to BillJ's objection, please find below how Quirk associates, on page 247 of his book mentioned above, the use of articles with the classification into count and non-count nouns:

count and non-count nouns

  • I agree the general rule is "concrete vs.abstract". But it's not always helpful. Could all the examples I provided except the 3rd one be interpreted either way? – Kinzle B Jun 19 '17 at 2:56
  • It's got nothing to with the articles. A count noun is defined as one that can combine with the cardinal numbers, "one, two, three, etc." – BillJ Jun 19 '17 at 5:42

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