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I find two nouns in this sentence from a Time article very strange.

The Atlantic columns are enriched with personal memoir, and a stocktaking, as Coates takes the reader through his own life and reflects on how the columns relate to the present.

The noun memoir, as far as I know, should be a count noun. This apparently is supported by dictionaries, see here and here. I would have said:

The Atlantic columns are enriched with personal memoirs

Is this a mistake on the part of the Time editor?

On the other hand, I thought stocktaking was uncountable (again, so say the dictionaries, here and here). I thought people normally say "I got some stocktaking to do." or "It's time for stocktaking." However, I did find an example sentence on Merriam Webster that reads:

It is time for a stocktaking.

Giving it more thought, I can sort of understand why stocktaking is used countably sometimes. My guess is it is similar to reality checks or inventory checks, depending on the usage. But when is it a count noun and when a mass noun? Does it depend upon the meaning?

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The first is actually not a mistake, but rather a creative writing technique to metaphorically relate one thing to another thing. A similar example:

Her speech was pure John F. Kennedy but with an Obama flair.

Obviously a "speech" can't be a person, so consider it shorthand for "like Kennedy's speeches". In a similar way, your example isn't saying that the columns are a memoir, but rather they include memoir-like elements.

Since this is a kind of literary device, I wouldn't recommend using it until you get a good feel for the nuance. And, as with any creative writing technique, it's best used sparingly, for special emphasis.

You might also see something similar, but with the adjectival "-y" or "-esque" suffixes appended to the noun.

The speech was Kennedy-esque, but with an Obama-y flair.

However, these weaken the comparison. The simile "A is like B" is less definite than the (literary) metaphor "A is B". (more on simile vs. metaphor)


As you might expect, the writer's creative use of "a stocktaking" is also not incorrect. Still, as it plays games with the grammatical structure of the sentence, it's a little disconcerting even for native speakers. The core sentence is:

The Atlantic columns are a stocktaking (of a certain series of events).

The countable "stocktaking" is a kind of shorthand for "a means to take stock", which is to say, "to list or record in detail". Another example:

The acrimonious board meeting turned into a pointless stocktaking of the current CEO's faults, rather than a discussion of how to fix the company's current problems.

Even though your sources say "stocktaking" is uncountable, I don't see anything wrong with this use.

  • I am not sure I understand how personal memoir is adjectival. Isn't it an NP with memoir being the head of the NP? Also, it appears I am parsing the sentence differently than the way you parse it. I parse it like this: "The Atlantic columns are enriched with (personal memoir, and a stocktaking)" I see personal memoir and stocktaking two substantives connected by the conjunction and in a prepositional phrase led by with. Could you elaborate on why you say the core sentence is "The Atlantic columns are a stocktaking"? – Eddie Kal Aug 14 '18 at 16:00
  • @L.Moneta Perhaps adjectival isn't quite the right term. It's more like "loose metaphor". The writer is saying the columns include elements like a memoir, and are also a stocktaking, as shown by (examples). It sounds like an odd sentence, and breaks the typical "list" style, but a good author will often do the opposite of what is typical to achieve a certain effect. In my opinion it's a good sentence, although a little too dramatic. – Andrew Aug 14 '18 at 16:35
  • I see it now. I parsed it wrong. I guess now I understand it should be parsed "The Atlantic columns are [(enriched with personal memoir), and (a stocktaking)]", where enriched with personal memoir and a stocktaking are both predicative. – Eddie Kal Aug 14 '18 at 21:34

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