Not counting set expressions, such as contrary to popular belief and beyond belief, I can't pinpoint the difference between belief and a belief.

And while Collin's learner's dictionary lists belief as uncountable, they offer two different examples:

  1. One billion people throughout the world are Muslims, united by belief in one god.

  2. ...a belief in personal liberty.

Contrary to the first example, Google Books has more results for united by a belief in one God (Having only 6 search results as the sample size might be the problem though). :-)

I want to believe these examples are interchangeable, but that's too good to be true, right?


Strictly speaking this is just a special case of what should be addressed by How do I know which article to use?, but I'm afraid no answer there seems to directly address the specific current case.

There's no context to have an opinion on example #2 above, but #1 could quite reasonably use the, a, or the "zero article". I'm inclined to think that the may (very slightly) elevate the status of belief. If you want to be "literal", it implies the only [significant] belief (it's been "particularized", with the implication that we all know which belief we're talking about). So an Anglophone Muslim might (again, slightly) prefer that version.

Correspondingly therefore, one might suppose that using the indefinite article a slightly downgrades the status of the belief (since there's an implication that it's just one of many beliefs). So feasibly an atheist might prefer that version.

To round it off, I could say that using the zero article (as Collins did it their citation) steers a more neutral middle path. But to be honest, these three "distinctions" are becoming progressively more tenuous. It's far easier (and probably accurate) to just say they're equivalent/interchangeable.

The actual word belief isn't inherently countable or uncountable. Depending on context (surrounding syntax and intended meaning) it can be either.

  • Thanks! These smaller differences in meaning have finally made articles (a bit) easier for me. – Atm5 Aug 19 '15 at 17:42
  • @Atm5: Well, there was a good usage by you! It would not have been good if you'd said finally made articles (bit) easier for me :) – FumbleFingers Aug 19 '15 at 17:50
  • (and it wouldn't be a good to use that article here! :) – FumbleFingers Aug 19 '15 at 17:51
  • Not all is lost then! I will make sure to enjoy these teeny-tiny moments of correctness from now on. – Atm5 Aug 20 '15 at 23:18

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