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  1. Let's have breakfast
  2. Let's have a good breakfast

I've learned that indefinite articles aren't used before uncountable nouns, so why is a used before the adjective "good" here?

Is there an exception to the rules or is it wrong?

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Let's have breakfast.

Here the word breakfast is an abstract noncount noun. "Abstract" means that you can't touch it with you hands, roughly speaking.

Let's have a good breakfast.

Here the word breakfast is "modified" by the adjective "good". This allows us to use a.

Quirk et al.'s Comprehensive Grammar mentions this usage:

The partitive effect of the definite article in the history of Europe (example 5.58 [lb]) finds a parallel in the use of the indefinite article in such examples as these :

Mavis had a good education.
My son suffers from a strange dislike of mathematics. (ironic)
She played the oboe with (a) remarkable sensitivity.

The indefinite article is used exceptionally here with nouns which are normally noncount. The conditions under which a/an occurs in such cases are unclear, but appear to include the following:

(i) the noun refers to a quality or other abstraction which is attributed to a person;

(ii) the noun is premodified and/or postmodified; and, generally speaking, the greater the amount of modification, the greater the acceptability of a/an.

In the beginning of the section, the authors say:

Abstract nouns tend to be count or noncount according to whether they refer to unitary phenomena (such as events) on the one hand, or to states, qualities, activities, etc on the other.

So, with no pre-modification ("good"), the word breakfast denotes an "activity" (or a "vague collection of edible items"? I'm not a native speaker of English so I lack a fine-tuned comprehension of this).

Let's have breakfast. = Let's eat.

With the pre-modification, it denotes an "unitary phenomenon" (one good breakfast - you could imagine that as a single event, or a single set of good food).

Let's have a good breakfast. = Let's have one good eating event.

Recall that the article a/an originates from the word one.

You can post-modify breakfast and this will again allow you to use a/an, because it will no longer be "consumption of food" in general, but one instance of "eating", one event:

Let's have a breakfast that will cost us at least $200. (We postmodified "breakfast" with a relative clause)


Quirk et al., A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Unit 5.58, "The articles with abstract noncount nouns"

  • 1
    +1 although confused as to the designation of breakfast as an abstract noun. I mean can't we see, taste, touch, smell, hear breakfast? (The same for coffee, which I don't think is abstract.) – GoDucks Feb 2 '16 at 7:40
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    Well, when you put it that way, I guess I am not, after all, saying Let's eat breakfast is like Let's eat meat. Put it that way, it's clear that breakfast is a different sort of noun. I can't pull breakfast out of the fridge like I can eggs, bacon, sausage, and more bacon, so I guess I was mistaking the components that went into the meal/activity of breakfast with the components themselves. Clearly we don't eat breakfast like we eat cheese and bacon and eggs. – GoDucks Feb 2 '16 at 8:52
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    Breakfast is on the stove. Yeah, I know, I can smell it. But is one smelling breakfast or a food item that will be part of breakfast? Or is one using the name of the meal to stand for the food items of/in the meal? – GoDucks Feb 2 '16 at 16:51
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    Counterexample: It's important to get an education. (No "good" or "bad" is necessary.) There is certainly something special about the names of meals. We tend to omit articles even when we conceptually equate the nouns with countable entities: Not ok: Let's have meal. But: Let's have breakfast is the same idea. It's not wrong to say I ate a breakfast but it's much more common to leave out the article. It's also common to use some, which we use with non-count nouns: Let's have some breakfast. – Jim Reynolds Feb 3 '16 at 6:29
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    @JimR - As in: She has a brown hair in her breakfast. Time to start wearing a hair net :^). – J.R. Feb 3 '16 at 9:26
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Breakfast is both countable and uncountable, concrete and abstract.

As a meal, it's countable just like meal.

As the idea of a meal, the general notion, it's uncountable (just like "mealness").

noun

A meal eaten in the morning, the first of the day: a breakfast of bacon and eggs
[MASS NOUN]: I don’t eat breakfast

Entry for breakfast at Oxford Dictionaries

An idiomatic example of breakfast as countable: I bought three breakfasts this morning. Those tightwads stiffed me with the bill!

To have breakfast can involve eating one of the meals (most commonly) or to possess the notion: The jungle-dwelling tribes of New Pirtzonia don't have breakfast. They are a fragile people with extremely sensitive digestive systems. The very notion of eating before late afternoon makes them nauseous.

Breakfast can also be a verb:

They breakfasted on chicken eggs with chicken legs.

Shall we breakfast at seven?

While nouns are countable, uncountable, or both, based on some kind of real-world distinction (whether we can count them or not), ultimately the classification is a grammatical one: If we can make a noun in a given sense singular and plural, then it's countable. How else can we explain why we're always counting money while money is (normally) uncountable?

  • While the extended discussions are interesting and have a place, I offer this answer as what seems a parsimonious explanation of the issue: Breakfast is both countable and uncountable. – Jim Reynolds Feb 3 '16 at 4:20
  • Breakfast cannot be abstract. It is a mass noun which you can smell, touch, eat, and even count depending on nouns. You can't count (I mean it is extremely difficult to count) the number of grains in a bushel, but you can surely count the number of bacon in your breakfast plate. They are not abstract. They are just food, almost all of which is a mass noun. – user24743 Feb 9 '16 at 17:03
  • @Rathony - Words like lunch and breakfast are borderline cases, and arguments can be made either way. One could argue, for example, that you can't smell or see "lunch" – you might be able to see a sandwich or smell the soup, because sandwich and soup are concrete, but lunch is still an abstract concept. That's a valid view; a cheeseburger is always a cheesburger, but lunch can be a cheeseburger, a salad, or a bowl of beans. And Jim and CopperK are not the only ones who think so. – J.R. Feb 10 '16 at 10:09
  • @J.R. There is one important condition for a noun to be abstract. They are not composed of concrete things, e.g., what does happiness consist of? Money? Health? There is no concrete answer. However, What does breakfast consist of? There could be millions of food items that can be on your breakfast plate, but they are all concrete and you can eat them. That's why it is a mass noun. You can only feel or think about (imagine, etc.) abstract nouns e.g., "I feel sadness", "Religion is nonsense", etc. Not easy to know where it comes from, what it is, what impact it would have on your life. – user24743 Feb 10 '16 at 10:23
  • @Rathony - We all agree it's a mass noun. My comment was addressed to your overly narrow assertion: "Breakfast cannot be abstract." Consider what Wikipedia says about abstract nouns: While this distinction is sometimes exclusive, some nouns have multiple senses, including both concrete and abstract ones; consider, for example, the noun art, which usually refers to a concept, but which can refer to a specific artwork in certain contexts. I'd say breakfast is similar: usually tangible, but able to be used abstractly. – J.R. Feb 10 '16 at 10:33
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I don't see your problem. I don't see any problem with "a good breakfast". Perhaps you should find a new formulation for your oversimplified school rule "indefinite articles are not used before uncountable nouns". Perhaps you should improve your rule by adding that such structures as "a good breakfast" are normal language.

  • +1 for telling it like it is, and calling indefinite articles are not used before uncountable nouns an "oversimplified school rule". (Sure, uncountable nouns often feel at home with no leading indefinite article, but that's hardly the end of the story.) Yet it's easy to see how this might confuse a learner. I wouldn't say, "I'll eat sandwich at noon," because sandwich needs a determiner (e.g., "I'll eat a sandwich at noon"); however, I could say, "I'll eat breakfast at ten," or, "I'll eat a breakfast at ten." I can see where this might be confusing for a novice. – J.R. Feb 2 '16 at 15:47
  • A beginner should know that it is no good trying to understand the use of articles with rigid rules that always tell only the half of the matter. Especially learners whose mother tongue has no article think this is a main problem of grammar. I think that is the fault of the schools in such countries which make too many exercises about the use of articles, which is of minor importance. Everybody will understand a learner even if his use of articles isn't correct.As it is an idiomatic matter and a matter of experience I would never drill such things at the beginning. – rogermue Feb 2 '16 at 15:57
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    @GoDucks - What do you say about "I'm in a hurry"? I never asked myself whether "hurry" is uncountable or not, I observed that the English say it in this way ( with "a"). – rogermue Feb 2 '16 at 17:03
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    Plenty of authors have written about eating a breakfast. It may not be common, but it's not ungrammatical. – J.R. Feb 2 '16 at 18:42
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    @J.R. - "the children eat a breakfast of cereal with toast" - postmodification detected! These linguistic terms do come handy in groping for the elusive regularities of usage. – CowperKettle Feb 2 '16 at 19:05

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