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I have a lack of imagination.

The party was bonkers, for lack of a better word.

I was having a discussion with a friend and some of the points raised were:

  1. In the second sentence, "for lack of a better word" is an object complement.
  2. There are two ways in which "lack" can be used. Either as a noun or a verb. In case (1) the noun form of the word is used.
  3. It's not "for a lack of a better word" and just "for lack of a better word" because "for" already implies an indefinite article.

I wasn't very satisfied with this argument so I posit two questions:

  1. Why is there no "a" before "lack" in "for lack of a better word" (or any similar phrases for that matter ex. for lack of trying, for want....)
  2. Are discussion points 1 and 3 correct? i.e. "for lack of a better word" is an object complement and that it lacks a definite article because "for" already implies it.
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  • @FumbleFingers makes a lot of sense. What about question #2? and just so i am clear here "for lack of a better term/word" is the idiomatic usage and not the one with "the" right? Jun 15 at 16:51
  • I don't really know or care exactly what you or anyone else defines as an "object complement". I speak and write English perfectly well without ever having learned such things (and I've got a degree in English Language & Literature! :). But I have to say your point about it lacks a definite article because "for" already implies it doesn't make sense to me. Jun 15 at 16:54
  • (In which context, note exclamatory For the love of God / Pete / Mike!, which would almost never occur without the definite article.) Jun 15 at 16:58
  • There's a load of more or less idiomatic expressions of this form, which don't take an article, and can't be varied; and in some cases have a meaning not deducible from the normal sense of the words: in need of, in spite of, in aid of, with reference to, with regard to, by dint of, in deference to.
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 15 at 17:25
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  • a lack of imagination is an x of y.
  • a harbinger of truth
  • a sign of wealth
  • a letter of credit
  • a man of peace

The a article denotes something in general; and the nouns are all mass nouns or abstract nouns or a given expression (letter of credit).

Now, lack can function as an abstract noun:

  • Lack of sleep can make you sick.
  • Lack of money must mean something.

But, you can also use: A lack of sleep can make you sick.

However, abstract nouns do not need an a after for.*

  • For peace in our times, a lot of effort must be made.
  • For imagination to work, it needs a place to grow.
  • He did poorly on the exam for lack of imagination.

However, when we qualify that imagination or lack, watch what happens:

  • He was not punished for a singular lack of imagination
  • They did not lose due to a huge lack of will power
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Posting FumbleFingers's lightly edited comments here as an answer:

There is no "a" before "lack" in "for lack of a better word" because if we were going to include an article there, it would be the definite article. Note that for [the] lack of a better word is semantically and syntactically identical to "in the absence of a better word" (where "the" is idiomatically required)

There's no difference between "for lack of a better word" and "for the lack of a better word". It's just a matter of what's become idiomatically established.

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