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“There was zero courage in this verdict,” he said. ”I think this goes to the jury not wanting to make a difficult decision."

I learned that mass nouns cannot be enumerated.

Yes, I know that zero courage can be replaced with no courage, but, since zero is a number, I wonder whether zero courage is ungrammatical or only sloppy style.

  • You should know that the sentence above is fairly poor use of English, although done rather commonly. Zero courage is a dull attempt at hyperbole (see some answers below). Far worse, though, is this goes to to mean this happened because. In clear English, you would just say "The jurors chose this verdict only because they were afraid to make a difficult decision." But the dull English quoted in the question is very realistic and commonplace. – Ben Kovitz Dec 8 '14 at 18:49
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One definition of zero is

2 the absence of a measurable quantity

However, this is a noun. As an adjective, zero means

not any or no

Based on this definition, it is correct to use it to describe a mass noun to say there is none of it.

I've noticed that using "zero" instead of "no" is usually used to emphasize the lack of whatever it's describing.

5

OED definitions include...

Nought or nothing reckoned as a number denoted by the figure 0
That is of the amount expressed by zero, i.e. none at all;
in Math. also transf. applied to a value of a function corresponding to the value 0 of the variable(s).
Hence (colloq.) more widely as adj. in the sense ‘no, not any’.
[emphasis mine].

That's to say, by traditional definitions and usage, OP is correct in saying that zero is a number - so it shouldn't be used as a quantifier, in contexts where you wouldn't use any other number. But in fact it's commonly used that way colloquially (usually only in spoken informal contexts).


Having said that, there are restrictions on its use...

?It's zero good hoping people will accept this as a reasonable utterance, even in casual speech.

Actually, I suppose it's possible some native speakers (certainly not me! :) will accept that contrived example. But I'm betting the vast majority wouldn't, so my advice to learners would be to avoid the form completely and always use no instead. You'll never be wrong that way.

  • This native speaker agrees with your assessment of zero good. – Ben Kovitz Dec 6 '14 at 4:11
  • @Ben: Would you also accept that "This topic holds zero interest for me" (with a few written instances in Google Books there) is either "acceptable", or at least "not as unacceptable" as my "It's zero good" (which has zero instances)? I know some learners will think "Ah! This looks subtle and interesting. I'd really like to master this aspect of idiomatic use!". But I stand by my final paragraph - too much effort, too little benefit, and too much risk of still getting it wrong. – FumbleFingers Dec 6 '14 at 13:13
  • Yes, zero interest also sounds acceptable to me, as the same informal, emphatic kind of phrasing as zero courage. And yes to your second point, too: while I think that making mistakes and getting corrected is an important part of learning, not to be prevented, wrestling with the subtleties of when zero can and cannot replace no does not seem like a fruitful use of a learner's time. This sort of thing requires an ear for the language, which comes from experience, not from rules people can memorize. – Ben Kovitz Dec 8 '14 at 18:12
  • @Ben: Exactly. But based on answers+votes here, a casual visitor to this question would probably be left with the impression OP's cited usage is "normal, acceptable". Whereas so far as I'm concerned it's well beyond the pale in all but the most casual/colloquial speech, and even then I'd be inclined to suspect the linguistic competence of the speaker. – FumbleFingers Dec 8 '14 at 18:23
  • Indeed the current votes suggest that this is a matter of ordinary grammar, which is wrong. I hope that whatever answer gets selected (if that ever happens) indicates clearly that zero courage is a variation from normal usage, and explains what a speaker is trying to do by making that variation: namely, "punch up" the ordinary phrase a bit (in a rather hackneyed way). – Ben Kovitz Dec 8 '14 at 18:33
4

It's a rhetorical flourish.

The person who said zero courage is "bending the rules" of ordinary usage. To a native speaker, saying zero as a synonym for no is a reasonable variation from normal usage. The ordinary phrasing is no courage; that would have drawn no attention to itself. Saying zero courage is emphatic: it's like saying "There was not even a little bit of courage in this verdict. There was no courage at all."

While zero courage in this context doesn't sound ungrammatical or sloppy to most native speakers, there are very similar phrases that no native speaker would say because they break rather than bend ordinary usage. For example, nobody would say two courage. That would be incomprehensible. See FumbleFingers' answer for another good example of going too far.

You shouldn't take the example as evidence contradicting the principle that mass nouns cannot be enumerated. It's evidence that zero can sometimes be stretched into an intensified version of no.

There is no precise general rule for when you can and can't do this kind of thing. You just have to get a sense of how far you can bend the language without breaking it. That can only come with (long) experience.

2

One of the possible meanings of zero is "the lowest possible amount or level; nothing at all"; one of the example phrases shown by the OALD is "zero inflation."
The example is similar to yours, since both courage and inflation are uncountable.

2

Some nouns like "courage" are quantifiable but not really measurable; one could describe Fred as having "more" courage than Joe, but there's no standard unit of courage that would make it possible to say that e.g. Fred has 2.7 more couragions than Joe.

The lack of defined units, however, doesn't affect "zero" because zero doesn't require units. If something is has a length of zero inches, zero centimeters, and zero angstroms, or zero miles, it has zero length; the units don't matter. If something has a mass of zero ounces, zero milligrams, or zero tons, it has zero mass; again, the units don't matter. That principle can be extended to things like "courage": it's not possible to specify any particular non-zero quantity of courage because that would require defining units, but since "zero" doesn't require units, it is possible to have zero courage.

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