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Does the noun 'English' have to be always uncountable?

Grammarly doesn't like my using an indefinite article before the noun 'English' because, I suppose, it's an uncountable noun. So for instance:

The novel is written in an elegant English. (❌ WRONG)

You have an excellent English. (❌ WRONG)

To correct it, I can either simply remove the article or turn the word 'English' into the adjective of a noun. See examples below:

The novel is written in elegant English. (I removed the article)

The novel is written in an elegant English style. ('An' here defines the noun 'style', and 'English' becomes an adjective.)

This is not the first time that I have problems with the 'uncountability' of nouns, since in my native language they are far fewer. In my native language, for instance, saying that a novel is written in an elegant English, would imply style or type, without the need to actually specify it. It even seems to me that this addition ruins the elegance of the sentence. But again, this might be a biased impression due to my linguistic background.

So, my questions are:

  • Is this rule so strict, or can I use an indefinite article before the noun English?
  • What kind of meaning or formality would such usage convey to a native English speaker?
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    Grammarly is a tool to help writers spot possible errors. Since the tool isn't perfect, the people who run Grammarly had to decide whether to make the mistake of flagging some correct things as wrong, or not flagging some wrong things as correct. They wisely chose to flag some correct things as wrong. Do not take Grammarly as truth. It's a useful tool to prevent you from making embarrassing or damaging errors. It's not as good a tool for learning the rules of English.
    – gotube
    Commented Sep 10, 2022 at 14:21
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    @JohnDouma That should be an answer, not a comment.
    – David Z
    Commented Sep 11, 2022 at 2:30
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    You should be specific about which dialect of English you want this answered for. There are valid constructions in Indian English which would be considered understandable but wrong in American English, and American usages which someone from Great Britain would find questionable, and... "Countries divided by our shared language."
    – keshlam
    Commented Sep 11, 2022 at 2:33
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    @JohnDouma Well, my point was more that it shouldn't be posted as a comment. Of course it's up to you whether you want to post it as an answer, or not at all. (I would say it's totally legitimate to post an answer even if there's already an accepted answer - and in fact sometimes another later answer gets more upvotes, or the OP might even change their acceptance - but it's your choice.)
    – David Z
    Commented Sep 11, 2022 at 3:54
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    See also ell.stackexchange.com/questions/100600/….
    – Théophile
    Commented Sep 12, 2022 at 16:05

4 Answers 4

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You would be wise not to depend solely on Grammarly for your grammar advice. You may safely ignore its advice for what it alleges to be your 'mistakes'. You can use an indefinite article before most uncountable nouns, if you wish to discuss a particular type, example, variety, etc, of the thing denoted by that noun. For example 'coal' is usually considered uncountable, but I might have designed a steam engine that only works efficiently with a particular variety of coal, and I could say, for example, that it works best with a coal that burns with a high temperature and without much smoke. Likewise, last night at a dinner party I was served a coffee that had a smoky flavour with hints of chocolate and vanilla.

You can say 'an English' if you wish to discuss a particular type or variety of English (there are plenty - slang, informal, formal, legal, scientific, etc), or perhaps that spoken by an individual, and for an example of this usage, I don't think you can get much better that this:

Educated speech - by definition the language of education - naturally tends to be given the additional prestige of government agencies, the learned professions, the political parties, the press, the law court and the pulpit - any institution which must attempt to address itself to a public beyond the smallest dialectal community. The general acceptance of 'BBC English' for this purpose over almost half a century is paralleled by a similar designation for general educated idiom in the United States, 'network English*. By reason of the fact that educated English is thus accorded implicit social and political sanction, it comes to be referred to as Standard English, and provided we remember that this does not mean an English [my bold emphasis - MH] that has been formally standardized by official action, as weights and measures are standardized, the term is useful and appropriate.

A Grammar of Contemporary English, by Randolph Quirk, S Greenbaum, G. Leech, J Svartvik (1973, Longman, London)

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Grammarly is wrong here.

Just as in your language, speaking of "an elegant English" is easily understood to mean "an elegant style of English". Similarly, "You have an excellent English" is understood to mean "Your variety of English is excellent", though many would find this sentence offensive as it implies that some dialects of English are inherently superior to others, and thus the speakers themselves are too.

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    @JohnDouma I'm also asserting it's correct. If it weren't correct, I would say so.
    – gotube
    Commented Sep 11, 2022 at 4:20
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    How is "an elegant English" correct? What is an "English"?
    – John Douma
    Commented Sep 11, 2022 at 4:21
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    @JohnDouma Like I said in my answer above, it means a variety or version of English. Here's a list of real-world examples
    – gotube
    Commented Sep 11, 2022 at 4:25
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    @JohnDouma If you won't take a list of real-world examples as evidence that "an English" is possible, then I can't help you.
    – gotube
    Commented Sep 11, 2022 at 4:34
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    @JohnDouma I'm just thinking. After all, if we can say "Your English is good" (we all agree this is correct), it means that someone else's English might not. This, ipso facto, implies the existence of different 'Englishes'. Of course, what we mean in this case is the level/knowledge of the English language. It is my understanding that what we're dealing with here is a grammatical ellipsis rather than an error. Conversely, your example (I drinks a lot) is clearly nothing more than a typo.
    – Fra
    Commented Sep 11, 2022 at 12:29
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As a general rule, normally uncountable nouns can be treated as countable when being used to discuss types or varieties of what the uncountable form refers to. There are a couple of ways this can be done:

  • Qualifying the uncountable noun by specifying the ‘type’ of type as part of a phrasal noun. For example: ‘dialect of English’ or ‘style of English’.
  • Qualifying the uncountable noun using a possessive, possibly with additional qualification in the sentence. For example ‘His English is refined.’
  • Qualifying the uncountable noun using an article, then further qualifying it with additional phrasing in the sentence. For example ‘The English they speak is refined.’.
  • Qualifying the uncountable noun using an article alone, or an article and some adjectives. This is the form seen in both of your examples.

The first form above is pretty much always acceptable. The other forms, however, while always grammatically valid, are not always considered stylistically acceptable by native speakers (that is, native speakers will usually understand them, but they may ‘sound wrong’), with acceptable forms depending on the particular noun. Language names are one particular category of noun that generally fails that stylistic aspect for the fourth form. Grammarly is most likely marking your examples invalid based on that stylistic aspect, not the actual grammar.

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    I would resent it if Grammarly told me I could not write "Martine speaks a warm-hearted meridional French that sings of a warm sunny day in Perpignan". Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 7:53
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As a general rule, adding or removing an adjective before a noun does not change whether an article is required. Since you would not say "The novel is written in an English" (or "in the English"), you should not say "The novel is written in an elegant English".

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    This is wrong. Uncountable nouns do not take indefinite articles, but they can often be qualified by an adjective meaning "a particular type or instance", and then they take an article. For example, searching the iWeb corpus for "a|an ADJ compassion", gives 869 hits, for example a quiet compassion, an immense compassion.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Sep 11, 2022 at 16:37
  • @ColinFine I would not expect "quiet compassion" to take an article, and indeed a quick ngrams search indicates that "a quiet compassion" makes up only a small fraction of the hits for "quiet compassion". Commented Sep 12, 2022 at 6:10
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    True, it is less common. But that does not invalidate my point, except perhaps that I could have said and then they can take an article.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Sep 12, 2022 at 10:21
  • @ColinFine if all you mean is that "some people sometimes use an article here", that is true but not very relevant. Some people sometimes do all sorts of things, intentionally or otherwise. Using an article appears not to be standard, or common, even for the very specific case you suggested. Commented Sep 12, 2022 at 10:29
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    @EspeciallyLime The fact that some native speakers use an article there is the only relevant thing to determining whether something is grammatically correct. It's the definition of what's correct. All the rules of English and everything that derives from them are abstractions we've made based on observation of what native speakers do. If I think I know something about English, then I see that a bunch of native speakers do it differently, I have learned a new rule of English.
    – gotube
    Commented Sep 12, 2022 at 13:51

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