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The general rule is to use an article for countable nouns (i.e. nouns permitting a plural) and no article for uncountable nouns. However, some nouns may be countable in one sense and uncountable in another sense, cf. the discussion of "truth" in http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/words/countable-nouns

Sometimes it seems hard for me to distinguish countable and uncountable senses, as the transitions between the meanings can be very subtle.

I recently stumbled upon the following:

This book is an essential reading. An extensive use is made of illustrations.

I found this incorrect and cut the articles:

This book is essential reading. Extensive use is made of illustrations.

However, the author objected and I was a bit troubled to explain, as both reading and use appear to appear in countable and uncountable senses.

Are both variants perhaps justifiable, or if the second is wrong, why exactly?

Or put differently, how can one distinguish the countable vs. uncountable meanings of "reading" and "use"?

  • 1
    Are you sure whoever wrote the first example above is actually a native speaker? It seems unlikely to me. There's only one legible instance of is an essential reading it in Google Books (it included to screen out irrelevant collocations such as an essential reading skill). But there are thousands of hits for the same with an essential read. – FumbleFingers Mar 14 '16 at 18:17
  • What is the source? AmE or BrE? – user3169 Mar 14 '16 at 18:30
2

In my (American) experience, the noun reading is only countable in three senses I can think of:

  • interpretation

    Smith says that the book is a metaphor for American involvement in World War II, but this is an incorrect reading of the text.

  • an event where stories or poems are read aloud to a crowd

    I am bringing two of my new poems to a reading tonight. The reading will be in Joe's Coffee House at 8 o'clock tonight.

  • a passage of text assigned by an authority to be read

    Students are expected to complete all readings on the day they are assigned. If you fail to finish a day's reading, you should do it the next day to catch up.

    The Gospel reading for Easter Sunday is a very long reading. [i.e., the passage of the Bible assigned to be read at the church service on Easter is long]

Otherwise, the noun reading is uncountable.

The only countable sense that is remotely possible is the third one here. The countable sense is likely not appropriate, unless the speaker is talking about the book as "a reading [assignment]" assigned by a teacher. Otherwise, the uncountable sense of "material that can be read" is much more appropriate. As FumbleFingers points out, if the speaker wanted to use a countable word, "an essential read" is more natural.


For use, it's a bit trickier. I associate a countable use with a single action or purpose, like

Sneaking up to that guard and tying his shoelaces together was an excellent use of your invisibility cloak.

In this case, a countable use suggests to me that the selection and position of images for the entire book was a single action, which doesn't feel natural to me. It's not quite incorrect (unlike the countable reading above, which does feel incorrect), but an uncountable use seems much more natural here, since it covers multiple decisions about which images to include (and where and how to include them in the book).

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The meanings 'reading' and 'use' really depend on the context. In the example

This book is an essential reading. An extensive use is made of illustrations.

'reading' is in its noun form meaning "something to be read". An example would be how lectures might assign you "readings". Clearly, in this case, "reading" is countable, which makes the use of the article acceptable.

The same case applies with 'use'. 'Use' is also used in its noun form in the sense of "application", which warrants the use of the article.

The only problem I see is in the second sentence, which can be better phrased as

An extensive use of illustrations is made.

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The two writing samples do not mean the same thing. In the first sample

This book is an essential reading. An extensive use is made of illustrations.

"reading" refers to a one-time event. It may refer to a moment when a person read something out loud to an audience. It may refer to the first time I read a particular book. This is very similar to what apsillers describes in his answer.
In the second sample,

This book is essential reading. Extensive use is made of illustrations.

"reading" refers to something that a person should read sometime. For example you could say "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is essential reading if you want to understand slavery and the American Civil War.

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