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I am confused, the following examples are from the Oxford dictionary, all from the same entry (2). Why in some cases it is "a command" and in some it is treated as uncountable?

‘he had a brilliant command of English’

‘For much of the season, he has struggled with command of his fastball.’

"They come with a very basic command of English, " she said.’ ¨

He has good command over English, Punjabi and Hindi languages.’

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I don't have an authoritative analysis but it might help to think of it like this: 'command' is uncountable. That's true for all of your sentences. It's certain adjectives that pull in the 'a'. Notice that your sentences only include 'a' when 'command' has an adjective: "a brilliant command", "a basic command". Not all adjectives require the article ("good command"), although "a good command" could also be correct. The point is that you should be looking at the adjective for the origin of the 'a', not the noun. In this case, 'a' is making no assertions about the countability of the noun, or indeed of the adjective.

So what is the relationship between 'a' and the adjective? As a quantifier, it functions not as "one", but rather as a synonym for "some" (possibly as a determiner). It signifies existence. It contrasts with "none at all"; not with two or three. 'a' here implies the opposite of:

  • He had no brilliant command of English
  • They come with not even a basic command of English

In "a sense of direction", direction is uncountable, but it means "some sense of direction" as opposed to "no sense of direction". Similarly, "she has a charismatic personality" and "he has a unique style".

I'm sure there are exceptions, but hopefully this intuition helps.

  • Hi Steven, welcome to the ELL Stack Exchange! Thanks for the thoughtful answer and interesting analysis of how syntax can derive from grammar. However, "command" is what is called a noncount noun and only has one form: "His command of the English language" and "Their command of the English language." Note that in the second of your two examples, the article "a" would still ne necessary, too. – rpeinhardt Jan 2 at 19:01
  • I initially wrote this with "not even a basic command" as you point out, but I thought it might interfere with the intuition I was trying to build so I left it out. But I agree that strictly speaking you would need the 'a' there. – Steven Jan 2 at 19:19
  • Ah. I see. To improve your answer, you might try some sort of formatting to highlight that you are intentionally omitting pieces in order to highlight others. Otherwise, there's a risk that someone might misunderstand and think that the sentences are fully contained and correct as is :) – rpeinhardt Jan 2 at 19:22
  • Thank you, good point! I put it back because on second thought I'd rather let any confusion come up as a comment to be discussed rather than suggesting an ungrammatical sentence as you suggest. – Steven Jan 2 at 19:24
  • Thanks for that but I believe adjectives do not drive articles, nouns do. Try another noncount noun, such as money - no matter what adjectives you will use, it will never be "a xy money" In your example, "a sense of direction", the article belongs to "sense". – John V Jan 3 at 11:27
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The use of the indefinite article as in the examples you list is possible with many uncountable nouns, and so is not peculiar to command. This is the best reference I can find at the moment, although the subject is somewhat addressed here and here.

Essentially, when an uncountable noun is limited in some way, it becomes a countable subset of the concept the noun represents: a healthy respect, a doomed love, a heavy fog, a dark coffee, an unquenchable thirst. This is what is happening in all your examples (except perhaps the last). Although command of English may be uncountable generally, a very basic command or a brilliant command are countable (or at least can be) because they exist in comparison to other (modified) commands.

In my opinion, uncountable nouns are a very fuzzy concept and the borders between uncountable, countable, and mass nouns are not clear cut. For instance, compare

We saw fog outside.

with

Outside, a fog rolled in.

In the first sentence, fog is an abstraction (or at least a general concept); in the second, the specific fog in the location is being referred to. And in both sentences, the use of the article could be reversed without really changing the underlying meaning. What would change would be a slight nuance that may, or may not, be important, given the context. In the second sentence, using the article makes the fog in question slightly more concrete (so to speak): maybe the fog was expected, or maybe (if this were part of a narrative) the presence of this fog at this time is important to the story.

I point this out because of your last example, which does not use the article, but, in my opinion, would be correct either way. As written, good modifies the abstract concept of command, but if the article were used, the command referred to would no longer be abstract, but a subset, or a particularized type of command. There would be the (subtle) implication that this good command is being compared to either a worse command or a better command.

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    Isn't because some of those nouns can be both countable and uncountable? Because try that with words like "money" or "information",.. – John V Jan 5 at 17:33
  • Probably so. You're right that there are some such nouns that cannot take an article in this way. I don't know if this area is not well defined, or if there is an inclusive theory that I'm not aware of (which is entirely possible). I wonder if the "abstraction" of the noun has something to do with it. The more abstract "knowledge" can take an article, while the less abstract "information" cannot. But while "money" cannot take an article, neither can "wealth", even when modified: "great wealth". It might simply be idiomatic, although it does "feel" like there is a rule, or at least a logic. – Matthew W Jan 7 at 17:45
  • Thanks for that anyway, I did not know that such a thing is possible in English. Doing some research, it does seem (as you mentioned) that it applies to certain abstract nouns only, possibly those that can be of different or special types and/or degree, such as love, understanding, enthusiasm (all can be strong, or weak) but money, information etc. cannot be thought of in that way. But what do I know, I am not a native speaker :) – John V Jan 7 at 18:02
  • Many nouns can be used countably (a good command of English) in the singular. One doesn't say: Their good commands of English. – Lambie Jan 7 at 18:28
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I received his command. Singular noun meaning "order"

We received our commands. Plural noun. Orders

The captain commanded the army unit. Verb. To lead.

She has great command of the Finnish language. Mass noun meaning "skill"

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"Command" has multiple meanings - in this context it means "control over", or "an ability to use" something.

Don't confuse it with the action of speaking or issuing a command. This is also a noun, but it is the name of the statement. In your examples it is speaking about someone's ability.

If someone has "a good command of the English language" it means they can speak, or use it well. There isn't really a benchmark for this, and it is opinion-based. I would take it to mean someone is conversational in the language.

Because this use of the word is a noun it is "countable" to use your term. It could also be used in a description of someone's language ability, for example you could say someone has "a poor command", or "a good command" of a language.

I looked at the dictionary link you gave and I cannot find the two examples you cite where "a" is not used. Are you sure you are not mistaken? The Oxford is a British English dictionary and "fastball" does not sound like something that would be used an example. Can you show a screenshot?

It is possible to use the word this way, for example:

His command of English is good.

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    That does not explain why the examples, taken from the single dictionary entry, some use the article and some do not. Please see the comments under the question. – John V Sep 16 '18 at 21:05
  • @user970696 I looked at your link and I can't see those examples. Are you mistaken? – Astralbee Sep 17 '18 at 9:02
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    You have to expand more examples under entry 2 (in singular The ability to use or control something). – John V Sep 17 '18 at 9:03
  • @user970696 You have to provide some evidence that these are examples from the Oxford Dictionary because the link you included does not show them. – Astralbee Sep 17 '18 at 9:08
  • @Once again - open the link. Locate entry 2. Click on the "More example sentences" button. It is not that difficult. I will upload an image if it will help you. – John V Sep 17 '18 at 9:11

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