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There is a rule not use the article ‘a’ with uncountable nouns. Unless, we talk about a particular kind of the uncountable noun. For example, ‘a dreadful anger’, ‘a fragile calm’, ‘a great enthusiasm’ etc…

“A and The Explained: A Learner Guide to Definite and Indefinite Articles” by Seonaid Beckwith identifies a limited number of uncountable nouns which can never take ‘a/an’ such as advice, fun, health, information, luck, news, progress, trouble, weather, work, furniture, homework, jewellery, luggage, and money: ‘beautiful furniture’, expensive jewellery’, ‘terrible luck’ etc…

Are there any other uncountable nouns, in addition to the aforementioned list, that are never used with ‘a/an’?

The reason I ask this questions is that I’ve come across a phrase where the author did not use ‘a’ before ‘physical examination’:

On physical examination, there were no abnormalities.

Although ‘examination’ is an uncountable noun, I thought the article ‘a’ was warranted simply because of the adjunct ‘physical’. Does ‘examination’ belong to the above mentioned list of uncountable nouns that never take ‘a/an’ or the author made a mistake by omitting ‘a’?

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  • You seem to think that mass nouns require “a/an” when preceded by an adjective (except for those that can’t take “a/an”). That is not true; someone can express “great enthusiasm”. Similarly, “physical examination” does not require a determiner. Jan 17 at 2:01
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    Unfortunately, it’s completely arbitrary. If you read a lot of examples, you’ll figure out which are which.
    – Davislor
    Jan 17 at 8:01
  • Hmmm, never say never - there's always context. Sapient pearwood makes for a dangerous luggage.
    – mcalex
    Jan 17 at 19:37

3 Answers 3

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(I have had to think hard about this answer: congratulations)

In your example, on a physical examination and on physical examination would both be possible, but on physical examination is much more likely.

I think that what is confusing you is that you assume that physical is a particular kind of uncountable examination, and therefore should take an article.

I agree that physical could be used that way, but here it is only acting a description, not a classification, so physical examination can be uncountable. A physical examination will almost always be taken to refer to an instance of examination which happens to be physical, rather than to a class of examination.

I'm still trying to work out why this is: partly, I think, because countable examination (meaning a specific event) is such a very common use, so its use as a kind of examinating comes less readily to the mind.

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    IMHO, "on physical examination, ..." means when physically examined, ..., whereas "on a physical examination, X" means (or implies, or at least elicits the idea that) on a certain examination X, but (possibly) not X on another examination.
    – Pablo H
    Jan 17 at 12:46
  • Indeed, and the clinician could even have written on examination which I have seen abbreviated as O/E.
    – mdewey
    Jan 17 at 16:10
  • Yes, and this can be shown by adding a 'particular kind' of physical examination into the mix. Try making it a difficult physical examination or a time-consuming physical examination without including the article.
    – mcalex
    Jan 17 at 19:43
  • Then there's "after a physical examination", which is more common than "after physical examination". I think this is one of those times where prepositions have granular rules, and there's no general rule
    – gotube
    Jan 17 at 19:48
  • @gotube Just 'after' would work in OP example (replacing 'on'), but that sentence has other issues making it awkward.
    – mcalex
    Jan 17 at 20:29
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"Examination" derives from the verb "examine". It varies to what extent it's "verbish" and to what extent it's "nounish". The more verbish it is, the less countable it is, and the less appropriate an article is. For instance, we can say "This PhD program requires two examinations" (although it's often shortened to "exam" when used in that sense), a very nounish use. In the example you give, it's very verbish. It's being used to mean an instance of examining something. We could change it to "On physically examining it" with little change in meaning.

There's a slight shift in meaning between the nounish sense and verbish sense, made all the more confusing by the fact that they are morphologically the same. Different meanings are somewhat easier to see with other words. For instance, "civilization" can mean the act of civilizing someone or some people (verbish), or the collective organization of a group of people (nounish). The former would probably be considered uncountable, while the latter would be countable; it would be weird to say "Civilizing Alice and civilizing Bob are two civilizations", but normal to say "Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome were two civilizations." Or there's "notification" in the sense of the act of notifying someone (verbish) versus a UI element that notifies someone of something (nounish). You can have several notifications of the second sense, but it would be weird to talk of several notifications of the first sense. You can say "Upon seeing a notification saying that my battery was low, I plugged my phone in" (nounish, so countable) or "Upon notification that my battery was low, I plugged my phone in" (verbish, so uncountable).

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  • Why use the odd forms "nounish" and "verbish"? These are nouns and verbs, with no "ish". Many English words can be used as either a noun or as a verb, depending on the sense and the structure. Jan 17 at 17:52
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It is not correct to say that the nouns: "advice", "fun", "health", "information", "luck", "news", "progress", "trouble", "weather", "work", "furniture", "homework", "jewellery", "luggage", and "money" can never take an indefinite article. Some of them can, when used in particular senses.

  • "An advice" can be a document expressing or incorporating an opinion or guidance.
  • "A health" can mean a toast: "He drank a health to the ladies all, but slighted Barbara Allen." (source: the classic Child ballad "Barbara Allen")
  • "An information" is a formal document accusing a person of a crime, used in place of an indictment is some jurisdictions.
  • One can say "No one has a luck like mine." to mean "No one is as lucky (or unlucky) as I am." This is a remnant of an old idea that luck was an attribute of a person, place or thing. In that sense it might be called countable.
  • "A progress" can mean the movement of a king or other ruler through a country or area, stopping at various places along the way. "Queen Elizabeth I made a progress when she wanted to reinforce her authority, and to inflict crippling expense on potentially dangerous nobles."
  • "A trouble" can be used to mean a particular problem. "Besides being out of work I have another trouble: my back just flared up."
  • "A work" can me a particular creation. "Copyright protects a work of authorship if it is original." or "The play Hamlet is often considered a work of genius." Here "work" is countable.
  • "In the first few years of its existence, the Euro was a money of account." Here "money" is used to mean "a type of currency", and is, I suppose, countable, although rarely used in the plural. "Monies" has a quite different sense.

Most of these are technical and/or old-fashioned senses, but they exist.

Many words have both a countable and an uncountable sense. For example "Nouns: countable and uncountable" lists "rice": as uncountable, but one may speak of "a rice" when referring to a particular species or variety, as contrased with other kinds of rice.

Some examples that do not normally take an indefinite article (I hesitate to say "never"):

  • "Gold" when it is used to refer to the metal in general. The same is true for other words for kinds of materiels, such as "iron" or "ice". But some such words have countable senses. "Stone" is used for the material in general, but "A stone" means a particular piece of rock. "Ice" is used for the material in general, but "an ice" is a dissh made from crushed ice plus a flavoring, often fruit juice or flavor.
  • "thunder", and "lightning" do not normally take an indefinite article, but "a rain", or "a snow" mean a particular rainfall or snowfall.
  • When "baggage" means "containers for travel" it does not take "a", but "a baggage" means a loose woman" (now old-fashioned if not obsolete).
  • When "traffic" refers to what clogs the streets it doe not take 'a", but it can also refer to a commercial exchange, as in "*A traffic in arms has sprung up."
  • When "travel" means to go from place to place it does not take "a", but "a travel" can mean the limiot on the motion of a part of a mechanism, as in "This lever has a travel of four inches."

In short one must consider the sense a noun is used in. Nouns that do not normally take an indefinite article, may take one, or even become countable, in specialized usages.

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    Great answer. 'A gold' is often unused in sports, to mean "a gold medal" — Kath Grainger finally wins a gold in Olympic rowing. The same with silver/bronze. (Know that you said here "to refer to the metal in general" but just adding as a point of interest rather than a critique) Jan 17 at 10:33
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    I don't think all the discussion of different meanings of the word are to the point. The fact that a normally uncountable noun may be countable in a specific, different, meaning does nothing to answer the OP's question.
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 17 at 12:19
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    @Colin Fine It helps illustrate ad demonstrate that the idea of a "list of words that never take 'a/an' at all" is misleading, that the distinction must be made on particular senses of those words, which I thiunk is exactly on point to the OP's question and what the OP has apparently not yet learned about English. Jan 17 at 15:54
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    Your examples for "an advice", "a health", and "a progress" all seem very awkward and incorrect to my American English sensibilities. The others seem fine, though. Jan 17 at 17:36
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    @coppereyecat "a progress" will occur mostly in discussions of history: Progresses in that sense no longer occur, they date to the times when Kings and Queens actually ruled in Europe and England. "A health" will largely occur in old texts and historical fiction, particularly referring to the 18th century or before. ("Barbara Allen" was current in colonial America.) "An advice" is probably more common in the UK, but I believe that some US authorities use the term. Jan 17 at 17:44

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