3

English has countable nouns and uncountable nouns. But I sometimes see the use of article with uncountable nouns in a sentence like 'we have an utmost importance'.

Here is an example.

I bring up, based on these three observations, a challenge with an utmost importance: we must radically change our fundamental perspective to grasp the world.
Source: An Ecological Vision of the World: Toward a Christian Ecological Theology for Our Age
by Hyun-Chul Cho. Gregorian Biblical BookShop, 2004.

How do we know when we use an article with uncountable nouns?

  • 3
    For future reference, where I'm from (NYC) we (native speakers) can and frequently do ask for "a water", in the same way we ask for "a beer". – Dan Bron Nov 24 '15 at 0:11
  • 4
    There's a lot of variety, but We have an importance is never acceptable. – StoneyB Nov 24 '15 at 0:20
  • 4
    @Rathony They're all grammatical, although the third one is misspelled. See The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, p.336. – snailcar Nov 24 '15 at 4:28
  • 3
    @Rathony That should be posted as a separate question. – snailcar Nov 24 '15 at 4:54
  • 3
    There's no reason they should both have the same grammar, and they don't. Do you expect all transitive verbs to have the same grammar just because they're all transitive verbs? Of course not. That's not nearly fine-grained enough an analysis to come up with an accurate description. Coffee and water belong to the same semantic class, and members of this class systematically have both count and non-count uses. Training does not belong to this class. – snailcar Nov 24 '15 at 16:19
2

An utmost importance is not natural English. It would not surprise me if the author of your example is not a native speaker.

The issue of English having count nouns and mass (or non-count) nouns is a poor way to talk about nouns in English.

A better way is to say that nouns can be used as count nouns, non-count nouns, or both.

Some nouns in English can be used as both count nouns and non-count nouns. Let's look at freedom.

It can be used as a count noun:

The USA guarantees its citizens many freedoms that other countries do not.

It can also be used as a non-count or mass noun:

Freedom, just like life and liberty, is highly-cherished by most citizens.

Ultimately, what decides whether a noun can be used as count, non-count, or both is the community of English speakers. Some nouns used only as mass nouns today were once used as both.

But importance is used only as a non-count noun in today's English.

As for your actual question:

You cannot use the indefinite article with a singular noun used as a non-count noun.

The following is ungrammatical:

An importance has come to mind today.

You can say:

Waiter, I'll have a cappuccino to drink.

because a cappuccino is conceptualized as a serving of cappuccino.

You can say:

This coffee is a coffee that is out of this world.

because a coffee is conceptualized as a type of coffee.

You can use the definite article with singular or plural count and non-count nouns.

1

English has countable nouns and uncountable nouns. But I sometimes see the use of article with uncountable nouns in a sentence like 'we have an utmost importance'.

So?

An article can be used with an uncountable noun. Whosoever said that you cannot or whatever source you have read stating that is incorrect!

I'll try to simplify it.

Countable nouns refer to things that we can count. These nouns can be used in singular/plural form.

book, pen, device turn into books, pens, devices

Uncountable nouns cannot be counted. Such nouns are in singular forms.

freedom, intelligence don't turn into freedomS, intelligenceS

Note that though uncountable nouns generally don't go in their plural form; but, at times, they are pluralized when we use them in a countable way.

You have beautiful skin, but
Belts are made of animal skins.

Now, the tough part. Articles!

When used as a singular, a countable noun can either take an indefinite or definite article.

You are an employee of this company - singular, indefinite
The chief guest arrives - singular, definite

But it can also take the definite article when used as plural and when you want to say about a definite, specific, or unique thing/person.

The boys down there are notorious - plural, definite

Uncountable nouns don't go with indefinite article. However, they can take a singular verb.

Sugar is injurious to health. - no indefinite article, singular

Uncounatble nouns can take the definite article ('the') when we are talking about a specific thing, group etc.

The information she gave is not reliable. - the definite article, singular verb.

So, check again and tell whether your sentence is correct

*we have an utmost importance

No, it's not! You used an uncountable noun; there shouldn't be an indefinite article.

You may say...

We have an utmost important (adjective) thing to do.

If you want to use 'importance', an uncountable noun, use it this way:

We have a thing of utmost importance.

Learn nouns here. Good source
Another source for using articles with nouns here.

  • Sir, it would be beneficial for all non-native speakers if you write a canonical post for articles! Excellent explanation! And one more thing, should I place 'the' before non-native speakers? – Rucheer M Nov 24 '15 at 6:12
  • 1
    The topic is wider than what is explained here! I'm afraid, I cannot include all of it. Thanks for the suggestion though. And yes, you can put the definite article before non-native because you are talking about the non native speakers on this site (i.e. registered ones!) and not from all across the world. @RuchirM – Maulik V Nov 24 '15 at 6:16
  • 1
    In the U.S., freedom is often pluralized, particularly by politicians. "They hate us for our freedoms.....Protect the freedoms we enjoy." I think the implication is that we have freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc., and those are our freedoms. – Adam Nov 24 '15 at 15:09
-1

I will try to answer the actual question posed. Before I do that though, let me make a brief remark. It seems that a lot of people in the comments section are just bickering over what is grammatically correct to say and what isn’t. Please, don’t forget that there is a difference between grammar studied and subsequently prescribed for usage by authoritative grammarians and colloquialisms that are commonplace and know no rules. It’s the latter that people tend to use all the time in daily life because not exactly everybody has majored in English Language and Literature at Harvard University or speaks like the Queen of England. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that language in general is not spoken directly from a textbook. And we have no right to blame them for that since the most important utility of human language is communication of thought. If that can be done effectively, the communication process can be considered to have taken place successfully. Thus, if somebody says, “Can I have a water, please?” and everybody around understands perfectly well what they mean–so be it. But, is that a grammatically correct thing to say? According to many of those pesky grammar people, not at all. It’s just like everybody in the U.S. will say “there’s many people down in the lobby” while they should be saying “there are many people down in the lobby.” Once again, there is descriptive grammar–rules and guidelines prescribed by Standard English–and prescriptive grammar–how the average Joe out on the street actually speaks the language. I’d personally go with “Can I have a glass of water?” But that’s beside the point. Anyway, that’s that.

Now, let’s get back to the topic at hand. How do we know when a noun is a mass noun or a count noun? Drawing on my experience with the language, we can’t really say whether it’s one or the other if we see a word for the first time. That apparently holds true even for words that we already know which, I presume, exactly is the problem you have. But we’ll get to that shortly.

Let’s take the word consternation, for example. What is the first thing you would do if you saw this word for the first time? You would look its meaning up in a dictionary, right? But, why? Because you would have no idea what it meant since you had just encountered it. What would you see there? Hopefully, you would see things like what kind of noun it is and a list of meanings the word can take up on. In my dictionary it says that consternation is a mass noun and should always be used as such and that it has only one meaning. They will even have provided a bunch of examples for you which you could use to learn how to actually use the word. Fine, you have just learned a new word and you know that you don’t need any articles in front of it.

For other words in English, the situation can be completely different. For example, the noun failure. This one can be both a mass noun and a count noun. How do we know when to use it as either a mass noun or a count noun? We don’t know that unless we look it up in a dictionary. Here’s a screenshot of the entry for failure in the dictionary I use:

enter image description here

As you can see, there are three basic meanings listed there. And I particularly want to draw your attention to how I just said that because this is very important–three meanings! What this means is that although it is the same exact word, you can think of those three meanings, for all intents and purposes, as constituting three different words altogether that are related, but different in meaning nonetheless. a failure means something slightly different than failure used without an article. This means that they cannot be interchangeable. If you substitute one for another, you’re going to mess up the semantics of your sentence because a failure basically means a loser (well, there are other meanings, but we’ll focus just on this one):

Look at him. He’s forty years old, but he has no job, no car, nothing at all. He’s a total failure!

Whereas failure with no article in front means lack of success:

I’m not used to failure. I just can’t allow myself to fail. So, instead of giving up, I’m going to continue studying hard no matter the cost. And I know I will win.

Do you see that even though the word is the same, depending on the presence of an article, the words semantically mean totally different things? And how do you know that? You use a dictionary!

Every word has its own grammar and context that goes along with it. And this is true for many more words in English. The list literally goes on. A language, for instance, is a bunch of words and syntactical rules that are applied to string them together to convey meaning. There can be many different types of languages: programming languages, spoken languages et cetera. But language is the ability that humans have to communicate with one another phonetically. Do you see how the meaning is slightly different when there is an article and when there is a lack thereof?

That’s how I usually treat mass and count nouns. And my advice to you is you do the same. But at the end of the day, it’s completely up to you how you want to go about learning your English.

To sum things up, each and every noun in English in regards to whether it’s a mass noun or a count noun should be dealt with on a case by case basis. There exist no hard and fast rules as to determining what kind of noun a word belongs to by just looking at it. If you're searching for some kind of mental formula that you could plug things in to tell you if there was a need for an article or not, I'm afraid you're entirely out of luck. There is no such thing. You stumble upon a new noun, open up your trusty dictionary, look it up and learn it.

  • Wow. All I can say is 'wow'. Brilliant command of English. – CowperKettle Nov 24 '15 at 22:59
  • How people actually speak is what constitutes the grammar of a language. (By the way, I came across this as I was looking for an answer to one of the featured questions.) Anyway, this answer conflates descriptive grammars and prescriptive usage manuals, and as I said in the first sentence, it presents a very wrong idea on what's grammatically correct and what incorrect. Who are these "grammar people" and authorities on language? Why, only linguists who study the language, and they'll tell you a water is completely grammatical. – userr2684291 Jul 23 '18 at 0:34
  • "What is not the practice of most, or of the best, is not part of our common language." That's what you wanna keep in mind when discussing grammar, not what some random self-proclaimed expert thinks everyone else should say. Majoring in English at Harvard doesn't make you an expert on English or necessarily improve your proficiency (reading does, and you'll do lots of reading there, I'd assume, but that's not the salient implication of your sentence). I have no idea where this misconception came from and I'd never heard this before. – userr2684291 Jul 23 '18 at 0:41
  • Of course, maybe I'm being a little unclear, but there are different kinds of experts on a given language. There's people who study its history, and then there's linguists who study the rules of the language as it is. A linguist can tell you that a water is grammatical because of certain rules English-speaking people follow (un)consciously, rules that are well-attested in writing and speech. By contrast, a prescriptivist will tell you a water is "incorrect" because they think so, they like it that way, etc.; i.e., they don't base it on any hard evidence of usage. That's the main problem. – userr2684291 Jul 23 '18 at 1:01
  • Another issue I take with this answer (the last one – the rest of this answer is just wrong, as explained above) is what if the dictionary says a word can be used both uncountably and countably, or merely implies it via the example sentences? What then? Take a look at this entry, or this one. The asker mentioned one example, but their question was more general than that. There are many such examples: many nouns listed as uncountable can also be used countably. – userr2684291 Jul 23 '18 at 1:02

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.