How would you say?

  • Referee! That was a penalty!
  • Referee! That was penalty!

It is because, in this case, "penalty" is considered as an adjective?

  • 2
    Penalty is a noun. In the sentence, it is a noun complement.
    – shin
    Dec 2, 2015 at 13:15
  • 2
    The word a in "That was a penalty" is not a preposition but an indefinite article. Dec 2, 2015 at 13:16

1 Answer 1


This sentence seems the most natural in the context of a soccer match:

Referee! That was a penalty!

"Penalty" is a countable singular noun, and because of this we place an indefinite article before it.

Example of such usage:

"But he definitely tripped Andre up, so the referee decided that was a penalty." (Express, November 2015)

We can also say

Referee! That was the penalty!

Here, we use the definite article the before "penalty", indicating that the speaker has in mind a particular penalty, and the referee knows (or is able to deduce from the context) what particular penalty the speaker is talking about.

The word "penalty" can also be used in a noncount sense:

That time I hit an entire sleeve of balls into the pond and finished the hole with a Slazenger range ball -- was that a violation?

Trust me, that was penalty enough. (source)

Since it's used in a noncount sense here, it takes no article.

Merriam-Webster's entry on penalty makes a mention of the word's non-count sense

[noncount] They allowed him to pay back the money without penalty.

Hence, I guess that the sentence

Referee! That was penalty!

is also passable, but it has a meaning that is different from the first sentence. Trying to construe a situation in which this statement would fit, I imagine a referee who had made a decision that was formally neutral but in essense hampered the team's ability to play. A player spoke these words, challenging the referee's decision by describing it as "penalty".

An example of this "defining use" of the phrase:

I inquired of the Customs department why that extra fifteen per cent was imposed, and they said that that was penalty. (Official Report of Debates, House of Commons, volume 175, 1926)

  • @cape - you're welcome! I forgot about the noncount use of the word, and recalled it only upon searching in Google News. Dec 2, 2015 at 13:30

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .