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Example with a context (Riots in Baltimore over man's death in police custody):

The riot broke out just as high school let out, and at a key city bus depot for student commuters around Mondawmin Mall, a shopping area northwest of downtown Baltimore.

Why do you think high school is in the singular form instead of the plural—high schools? high schools actually makes much more sense since there are usually many schools in a city. Or could it be that it's used in a mass noun kind of sense?

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  • The writer clearly is not referring to all of the high schools in the city. The only high school(s) that are relevant to the sentence are the ones near the area being referred to (the one(s) around Mondawmin Mall). Commented Apr 29, 2015 at 13:18

2 Answers 2

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Yes, it's probably being used as an uncountable noun.

Many countable nouns in English can be turned into uncountable nouns just by using the singular without an article. Then you're talking about the idea or the thing as a group rather than about individuals.

"The high school I attended is in New York." I am talking about one particular school. This is an ordinary singular.

"Students usually learn algebra in high school." Now I am not talking about one particular school, but about high schools in general.

As I say, you can do this with many nouns.

"Mr Putin heads the government of Russia." He is the leader of one particular government.

"Mr Putin discussed his theories about government." He is speaking of government as a general concept.

But you can't do it with any noun.

"I ate a large banana." I ate one particular banana.

WRONG: "Banana is curved and yellow." No, you just can't do that with "banana".

I'm not sure if there's some general rule about what specific nouns can be turned into concepts and which can't.

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  • Banana can be used as a non-count noun if you conceptualize it as a material―for example, if you detonated a banana and got banana all over your shirt, the count use refers to a whole banana and the non-count to banana as a material.
    – user230
    Commented Apr 28, 2015 at 21:12
  • @snailboat Good point. You could also say, "We made banana pies." I guess it's not that certain nouns can't be "generified", but that it depends on context.
    – Jay
    Commented Apr 29, 2015 at 2:02
  • @Jay Now I could be wrong..... but wouldn't banana in "We made banana pies." be an adjective describing what kind of pies? Commented Apr 29, 2015 at 13:15
  • @Warlord099 Yes. Not a valid example. Never mind.
    – Jay
    Commented Apr 29, 2015 at 13:22
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Firstly, I would like to say that I think the quoted text is poorly phrased.

Based on the context of the sentence I would probably interpret it to mean:

The riot broke out just as [the local] high school let out...

My reasoning:

  • It is my experience that not all schools run on the same schedule, so using a blanket statement to refer to all of the schools in the city "letting out" at the same time is ridiculous to me.
  • Only the school(s) near the Mondawmin Mall would have any kind of relevance to the sentence.
  • Since the Frederick Douglass High School is located right across the street from the Mondawmin Mall, I would conclude that is the reason for the significance of mentioning it in the sentence (due to the increased flow of traffic of people leaving the school).

My conclusion is although the author may have been using 'high school' as an 'uncountable noun' in this particular sentence, I feel that he or she was lazily referring to the specific high school located in that immediate area.

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  • It cannot be interpreted as referring to a specific school, since there is no definite article. Commented Apr 28, 2015 at 20:11
  • @200_success I can and will interpret it as such. The question is "Why do you think high school is in the singular form instead of the plural—high schools?" Well, I THINK based off of the entire context of the article that the writer was referring to the local high school. Whether or not there should be a definite article is irrelevant to me here, because it is entirely possible that the journalist made an error. Furthermore, I would find it ridiculous to imply that ALL high schools would 'let out' at the same time, because such has not been my experience. Commented Apr 28, 2015 at 20:32

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