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  1. The building was destroyed by a fire.
  1. The building was destroyed by fire.

I have almost always used “fire” as an uncountable noun. What’s the difference between the two sentences? Which example is a native English speaker more likely to use to describe this?

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    Does this answer your question? Do we need to put an article after "by"? Mar 12, 2021 at 16:41
  • @FumbleFingers It does not. I believe the 2 threads are completely different. Mar 12, 2021 at 16:49
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    In nearly every case when something was destroyed by fire (with or without an article), there was only one fire, so in practice the meaning would almost never be affected by whether or not you include the article. But we usually don't. Mar 12, 2021 at 16:50
  • Maybe it's because I'm a native speaker and you're not, but to me the optional (but essentially meaningless) article in your "fire" example is essentially the same as This product was made by [a] machine or We chose the leader by [a] secret vote. Mar 12, 2021 at 16:56
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    As I said before, I think the article is essentially meaningless in such contexts. People are trying to define a semantic distinction that simply doesn't exist in nearly all real-world situations. Nobody really cares about making the point that something was burned by multiple fires, made by multiple machines, or elected by multiple voting processes. It's nearly always the method, not the "number of agents / events" that matters. Mar 12, 2021 at 17:30

3 Answers 3

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For example, wind and fire are countable and uncountable.

It is dangerous for children to play with fire. [uncountable].
A fire destroyed my kitchen last year. But the fire did not destroy the rest of the house. [countable]. House fires can be devastating to families.

A cold wind blew all night long. Now, there is no wind at all.

Wind is needed for sailing. When there is no wind, a sailboat will not move.

Have you read the book The Winds of War by Hermann Wouk?

  • destroyed by fire as opposed to destroyed by flooding or water or wind. Here it refers to the natural element, fire.

  • destroyed by a fire means a specific blaze, a specific event when fire (an element) burned down the house.

(Please note: ngrams does not explain English usage.)

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  • A great answer. I would be grateful if you could tell which example you are more likely to use (Example 1 or 2). I am just curious to know that which example native speakers would prefer to use. Mar 12, 2021 at 16:40
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    @AydenFerguson They are both correct. It depends on whether you are talking about an event (a fire) or if you are talking about the element (fire). Native speakers would use either one depending on what they mean.
    – Lambie
    Mar 12, 2021 at 17:52
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They are both correct.

  1. In this version, we expect to be told about the fire. For example, "The building was destroyed by a forest fire."

  2. Here we might assume that the source of the fire was within the building itself and the fire was probably restricted to the building.

The above is not an inviolable 'rule' but it's a good guide.

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  • I am kind of confused with the use of the indefinite article before "fire" here, I do understand the use without an article though. I have a question fellow member, which example are you more likely to use to describe that situation, Example 1 or 2? Mar 12, 2021 at 16:30
  • I numbered them to coincide with the numbering of your examples. Mar 12, 2021 at 16:49
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A fire (countable) is any instance of fire. It can be a building fire, a forest fire, even a campfire. If it's too small (e.g. a candle) it's probably better referred to as a flame, but in general, instances of fire are easy to count and are well-defined in their extent and duration.

In your example, whether "fire" should be countable or uncountable depends on what you want to emphasize. "Destroyed by a fire" focuses on the disaster, while "destroyed by fire" suggests a forensic point of view, explaining the damage. I would err on the side of using the article if it doesn't seem to matter, but I can't think of any cases where they can't be interchanged.

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  • I would err on the side of not using the article if it doesn't seem to matter, since that's what everyone else does. Mar 12, 2021 at 16:52
  • How many of those statistical uses are "can be destroyed by fire"? Ngrams leave a lot of information out. Mar 12, 2021 at 16:57
  • Does it really matter how many exactly match the current context? The ratio is so extreme it's not worth bothering about a few "spurious matches". But to answer your specific question there, the answer is definitely none, since my search string was was destroyed by [a] fire. Note that I couldn't also include the word building because when the article is included that makes 6 words, and NGrams only accepts 5-word sequences. Mar 12, 2021 at 17:19

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