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There is such a thing in English that when a mass noun combined with an adjective it takes the indefinite article. For example:

He had a great knowledge of English.

But I have noticed that is not always the case. For example: I have observed that with the word "fluency" and other adjective the is not followed, for instance:

She showed great fluency in English.

Would it be correct to say "She showed a great fluency in English"? Tell me please if there is any additional rule to that.

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    Hmmm...no. He had a great courage is not correct.
    – Phil14
    Aug 16, 2017 at 9:47
  • Some non-count nouns can take the indefinite article, but I don't think "courage" does. "Fluency" can in There was a noticeable fluency in the way he spoke. There are a very few non-count nouns where "a" can combine with a non-count singular noun, for example Ed has a good knowledge of Latin; We wasted a great deal of time; A number of problems have arisen; I have a high regard for them, and one or two others.
    – BillJ
    Aug 16, 2017 at 10:21
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    Possible duplicate of Does an uncountable noun take an article if it has an adjective before it?
    – Laurel
    Aug 16, 2017 at 12:50
  • Michael Swan: With certain uncountable nouns - especially nouns referring to human emotions and mental activity - we often use a/an when we are limiting their meaning in some way. We need a secretary with a first-class knowledge of German. (NOT ... with first-class knowledge of German.) Note that these nouns cannot normally be used in the plural, and that most uncountable nouns cannot be used with a/an at all, even when they have an adjective. My father enjoys very good health. (NOT ... a very good health) He speaks excellent English. (NOT ... an excellent English.) Aug 16, 2017 at 20:01
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    I think Laurel is correct; I think hunter's answer there about converting mass nouns to counting may be what is going on here. It's not that the adjective directly causes the change, but the adjective signals that there is a (possibly unstated) comparison happening, which converts what appears to be a mass noun to a countable. If "she shows a great fluency in English", that fluency must be great in comparison to something else--either her fluency in another language, or other people's fluency in English.
    – Matthew W
    Aug 17, 2017 at 20:59

1 Answer 1

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There is a rule in Michael Swan's "Practical English Usage" (section 149.4):

With certain uncountable nouns – especially nouns referring to human emotions and mental activity – we often use a/an when we are limiting their meaning in some way (and we generally limit it by putting adjectives).

  • We need a secretary with a first-class knowledge of German (NOT...with first class knowledge of German ).
  • She has always had a deep distrust of strangers.
  • That child shows a surprising understanding of adult behaviour.
  • My parents wanted me to have a good education (NOT .... to have good education).
  • You've been a great help.
  • I need a good sleep.

Note that these nouns cannot normally be used in the plural, and that most uncountable nouns cannot be used with a/an at all, even when they have an adjective.

  • My father enjoys very good health. (NOT ... a very good health.)
  • We are having terrible weather. (NOT... a terrible weather.)
  • He speaks excellent English. (NOT ... an excellent English.)
  • It's interesting work (NOT ... an interesting work.)

Unfortunately this book does't show a list of such uncountable nouns which can/cannot be used with "a". But the Ngram Viewer shows that "fluency" is not used with "a". See the results of searching:

So, it would be better to say "She showed great fluency in English".

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