Example with a context:

This week’s alleged kidnapping of 90 Syrian Christians sent shock waves around the world, but the young men of the Islamic State have been flagging for months now a simple idea: They follow an interpretation of Islam that blesses a 7th-century Quranic war strategy (9:5) to “capture and besiege” anyone who is a mushrikun, or “polytheist,” and Christians, in the world view of the Islamic State, fall into that category.

In gruesome video of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians released last week, Arabic writing flashes over the image of the Christians in captivity (in 3:28 — 3:40 of the video), reading, “They call upon their God and die as al-mushrikun.”

I'm wondering why there is no article in front of gruesome video. Obviously, according to the most basic English grammar rules, it really should be in the gruesome video of or in a gruesome video of. Am I right or is there something I'm missing?

  • 1
    To me it sounds like 'now in glorious color'. – TaW Feb 28 '15 at 8:57
  • @TaW As distinct from "now in a glorious colour -- imperial purple!" – David Richerby Feb 28 '15 at 13:30

There's something you're missing: video is being used as a mass noun.

Omitting the article invites you to think that there is some amount of video "footage", measured in total minutes, not a single "video".

You can do this with many nouns in English that are primarily count nouns:

Let's get a pizza! / Let's get pizza! [The latter doesn't specify how much or how many.]

Biblical scholars study a lot of texts [specific written documents]. / Seneca the Younger wrote a lot of text [all of Seneca's writing imagined as if it were a sort of liquid, not distinguished into separate documents].

You can't do this with most nouns, though:*

Let's hail a taxi. / Let's hail taxi. [Sorry, no one uses "taxi" as a mass noun.]

Let's read a book. / Let's read some book. [With a mass noun, "some" means an unstated amount of it. But with a count noun, "some" means an unstated particular instance. "Some book" means roughly the same as "a book".]

I don't know of any rule to tell which nouns you can do this to and which you can't. Somehow, though, when I hear a count noun used as a mass noun for the first time, usually it sounds natural. I think there are just a lot of rough categories, familiar examples, and customary ways of interpreting a count noun as a mass noun and vice versa.

By the way, if they wanted to refer to a single video, correct grammar would be a video, since the video has not been mentioned previously.

When they refer to it later (in parentheses), they do refer to it as "the video". "The" can refer back to a previous count noun or a previous mass noun, so "the" alone doesn't disambiguate. From the time markings of 3:28 and 3:40, though, they're clearly referring to a specific video. So, they could have said "In a gruesome video", and indeed the writing would be a little clearer and smoother if they did. It might even be a typo which just happens to be grammatical.

* Well, you can do it to any count noun but often the result is strange or poetic language.

  • 1
    +1 If I had seen your answer here I might have sent the surgery question here. Although there are some differences. Like can one say "I have a brain surgery tomorrow"? Discussion at my answer. – user6951 Feb 28 '15 at 12:16

There are three different ways to think of "video" as a noun.

The first way is to think of it as a single object: a video, or a video clip. You might say "This DVD contains a video you might want to watch." The emphasis is on the perception of the video as a whole, and suggests that you should watch the entire video.

Another way is to think of it is as a sequence of images. In this context, you can say "This DVD contains 10 minutes of video you might want to watch", or "This DVD contains some video you might want to watch." In this usage, you might watch some or all of it, at your discretion.

Finally, you can refer to a sequence of images in a general sense, as in "This DVD contains video which some viewers will find disturbing." Here the term "video" is used to emphasize the sense of experiencing the images as they are played.

Your quotation uses video in this latter sense, so no article is required.

  • I'm not convinced there's a distinction between your latter two items. I see only two: mass noun vs count noun, as Ben Kovitz describes. – WinnieNicklaus Feb 28 '15 at 4:00

Yes, you are correct. The example you quoted is nonstandard usage; In a gruesome video released last week ... is correct.

  • This is incorrect. "Video" is also a mass noun, like "audio". "In a video" means "in a moving picture presentation"; "in video" means "through the medium of moving images". I agree that "in a gruesome video" is much more common usage but "in gruesome video" is not nonstandard usage. – David Richerby Feb 28 '15 at 13:35
  • 1
    No, that's not right. While it is true that 'in video' can be an adverbial phrase, that is clearly not the intention here---it's a typo and the OP was correct to identify it as such. To see this, ask yourself: what is the subject of the sentence? Is it the video? Or is it the Arabic writing? The author is not saying that the Arabic writing flashed on the screen 'through the medium of moving images', she is describing the video. (Unless, oddly, she was describing the writing as 'gruesome'.) – Hugh Feb 28 '15 at 13:45

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