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From an article by McWhorter: "The Grumpy Grammarian: Surely, Actually the Scolds Have Lost Their Minds"

Complaints about literally long predate Biden, of course. An early rendition came from the satirist and journalist Ambrose Bierce, who declared in 1909 that “to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is intolerable.” But “wrong” uses of literally go back to Dryden, Austen, and Thackeray.

Misuse” that has been going on that long would seem to suggest that literally’s meaning has, well, changed.

Since misuse is postmodified by "that has been going on that long", would it be okay to use an indefinite article before it?

Amisuse” that has been going on that long would seem to suggest that literally’s meaning has, well, changed.

Why did the author of the article use no article before "misuse"?

  • You didn't ask about the quotation marks around "misuse" and other words. So I assumed you knew what their purpose is for. – user6951 Jan 5 '15 at 21:10
  • @CarSmack - Did the quotation marks affect the choice of an article? I guess they were used to stress the author's view that the "misuse" is not really misuse. – CowperKettle Jan 6 '15 at 1:32
  • No, they do not at all affect article usage. They simple denote the author's ironic attitude towards such words "wrong" and "misuse". – user6951 Jan 6 '15 at 2:36
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...But “wrong” uses of literally go back to Dryden, Austen, and Thackeray.

uses is a plural count noun.

Misuse” that has been going on that long would seem to suggest that literally’s meaning has, well, changed.

According to ODO, "Misuse" can be a count noun and a mass noun. The word is related to use, of course, with the prefix mis- meaning bad, badly, wrong, wrongly.

Misuse here is a mass noun. We know it is a mass noun, because single count nouns usually require an article. In addition, we know from the relative clause that it is meant to refer back to the multiple 'wrong uses'. As such, the previous multiple 'wrong uses' can be seen as examples of 'misuse'. This is felicitous.

Else,

A “misuse” (but which one?) that has been going on that long would seem to suggest that literally’s meaning has, well, changed.

What would this singular count noun be doing?

Consider:

Many wrong thoughts about the word go back to Dryden, Austen, and Thackeray. A "wrong-thought" (but which one?) that has been going on that long would seem to suggest...

It seems to be not felicitous.

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Why did the author of the article use no article before "misuse"?

Why might we not use an article there? In order to present the noun as paradigm of the practice it names, rather than as an instance of it, as a rhetorical strategy designed to question the aptness of the label "misuse" for this situation.

Misuse without a determiner is an abstraction.

We could also say, as you have said, "A misuse that has gone on for so long..." in which case we would have begun our statement by implicitly acceding to the label, only to reverse ourselves in the second half of our sentence.

P.S. The linguistic effect of not using an article there is imitated by (or reflected by) the quotation marks placed around the word.

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