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Sometimes "a" is used with shame/pity/honor, sometimes it's not. What's the difference? How to understand when it should be used.

  1. Have pity! Please have a pity on the helpless.

  2. Shame on you! What a shame!

  3. Please show honor to your elders. It is an honor for me to be here.

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Shame and pity as mass (uncountable) nouns represent emotion emotion or social status.

Shame, in that sense, is what is meant when someone is ashamed. As an emotion, it is the state of knowing that you have done wrong. As a social status, it is other people knowing that you have done wrong.

Pity is similar to the everyday use of sympathy in some cases, but it carries a more negative connotation. To have pity on someone, or equivalently to pity someone, is to feel sorry for them, to recognise that their situation or experience is not good. By extension, in similar many to have mercy, have pity can mean to act to demonstrate that pity.

Similar distinctions apply to honour, which is essentially a complement to shame. To be seen as having honour is a social status recognise that you act properly, or have acted properly. It doesn't really exist as an emotion, though, except in the past tense - to feel honoured is to have been shown honour, or been given honours (official recognition like a knighthood). To have been shown or done honour is to have been treated with great respect.

As a countable1 noun, represented by the versions with indefinite articles, a pity and a shame are colloquially used as near-equivalents. The example of a pity in your question is, however, in error. That is not how it would be used. If something is a shame or a pity, as in what a shame, it indicates that an outcome is regrettable.


1: if you classify nouns only into countable/uncountable, these are countable nouns that never exist as plurals. If you classify further, then they are singular-only nouns.

  • Thank you! Any idiomatic examples with "a shame", "a pity"? – user1425 Feb 14 at 14:58
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    "She turned you down for a date? What a shame." "You failed your exam? That's a pity." Neither suggests anyone has done anything shameful or deserves actual pity, it's just an expression that it would be better had things been otherwise. – SamBC Feb 14 at 16:00
  • What a shame and what a pity are not countable. If they were, the plurals would exist and they do not. A shame and a pity are idiomatic, not countable. shames and pitys do not exist as plural countable nouns. – Lambie Feb 17 at 16:50
  • Well, shames does (exist as a plural), though it's unusual. However, if you classify nouns into only countable and uncountable, those words are countable but never occur in the plural. If you classify nouns into countable, uncountable, singular-only and plural-only (as some lexicographers do), they are singular-only. Singular-only is not the same as uncountable. Uncountable nouns do not take an indefinite article. – SamBC Feb 17 at 17:10
  • @Lambie: It's a valid point of contention or confusion, though, so I've added a footnote to that effect. – SamBC Feb 17 at 17:14
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1) Have pity! Please have pity on the helpless. [pity as used there is uncountable and "an abstract noun", like love,hate, honor, wealth, poverty, etc.]

2) Shame on you! What a shame! [What a shame or what a pity are idiomatic expressions; they mean: too bad, for a situation, they both take a].

3) Please show honor to your elders. It is an honor for me to be here.

3) is not grammatical. We'd say: Please honor your elders. [verb]

It is an honor for me to be here. [right] It is a pity this question causes so much confusion. [right, countable but always singular.] It is a shame he didn't like the movie.

a shame and a pity are both idiomatic. However, there is also the abstract noun usage:

  • You should be generous with your pity.
  • Pity is tricky. It may be useful but is not always a good thing.
  • Shame is something people feel at times in their lives.

Finally, honor can be countable and plural at times:

  • Please do the honors. [Pour wine, for example]
  • The honors went to him. [He received all the honors. Meaning: just about anything from publicly expressed kind words to medals and things like that.]

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