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Here is a hypothetical situation. You're trying to write a post along with an image on a website. So you added an image file while writing, and clicked the submit button. But the image doesn't show and you don't get why it doesn't show. Here, is the sentence below correct to describe this error you are not sure of?

The image was not uploaded due to an uncertain error.

I am uncertain whether the use of uncertain is correct in the above sentence, because the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary covers the adj. uncertain as follows.

  1. [not before noun] uncertain (about/of something) feeling doubt about something; not sure
  2. likely to change, especially in a negative or unpleasant way
  3. not definite or decided
  4. not confident

    (You can see multiple example sentences for each meaning in the link. For conciseness, I only added meaning definitions.)

It seems to me that the first meaning is the one that matches this context. But, it says it cannot be used before a noun, meaning the sentence is incorrect. What is the truth?

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    It seems odd, and I think the reason is the element of 'feeling' in the definition you quote: the error cannot 'feel doubt'. In other words, you as the user are uncertain what the error is, but the error itself is unknown. Which leads me to the point that the more idiomatic phrasing is 'an unknown error.' – danch May 13 '18 at 20:40
  • @danch Thank you very much, for answering with the intuitive approach by which now I get what was wrong of my interpretation of the word in that sense. – Smart Humanism May 14 '18 at 6:30
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According to Merriam-Webster, there is no problem with putting uncertain in front of a noun:

  1. a : not known beyond doubt : DUBIOUS · an uncertain claim
    b : not having certain knowledge : DOUBTFUL · remains uncertain about her plans
    c : not clearly identified or defined · a fire of uncertain origin
  2. : not constant : VARIABLE, FITFUL · an uncertain breeze
  3. : INDEFINITE, INDETERMINATE · the time of departure is uncertain
  4. : not certain to occur : PROBLEMATICAL · his success was uncertain
  5. : not reliable : UNWORTHY · an uncertain ally

The most applicable definition, in your case, is 1c: "not clearly identified or defined."

Even Oxford's actual definition of uncertain gives several example sentences where it is used before a noun.

The problem with your analysis of the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary is that it's not actually the first definition that's the most applicable to an error message.

That first definition implies intent. By using the words "(about/of something) feeling doubt about," there is a subject who has a conscious thought or feeling. Although the word itself is the same, that specific meaning of the word (there are several) cannot be used in front of a noun because that would imply that the object is alive.

In terms of an error message, the most applicable of the definitions provided by the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary is the third one: not definite or decided. (And that definition can be used in front of a noun.)

The reason why you see unknown error more commonly is because there is less chance of confusing specific meanings. Uncertain error is not wrong, but it can be more easily misunderstood—and, so, it's less common.

  • Thank you so much, for the clear, neat answer. You made me get through the problem out to the other side exit. To sum up your answer, I picked a wrong definition from the premise level of the analysis and there is nothing wrong with uncertain error in that sentence. But it can possibly wrongly interpreted by certain viewers due to lack of the clarity so alternative expressions like unknown error are preferred. – Smart Humanism May 14 '18 at 6:34

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