Relationship with countable, uncountable, and abstract nouns
Countable nouns and the relationship with articles
Countable nouns often have an article, especially when we use the same word repeatedly in a piece of writing. For example, we might write about a particular study. The first time we refer to it, we would say, ‘a study by Smith (2007)’. If we refer to the same study in the next sentence we are likely to say, ‘the study’ or ‘Smith’s study’.
In either case, we provide readers with a determiner to help them understand which study we are referring to.
There are two more guidelines for deciding about the use of articles with countable nouns.
- When referring to an entire class of objects, you can use the indefinite or definite article.
- When referring to an entire class of objects, if you pluralise the objects, you do not necessarily need an article.
Uncountable nouns and the relationship with articles
There are four things to remember about uncountable nouns.
- Uncountable nouns describe things which we don’t normally separate into individual pieces; for example, sand, milk, and butter.
- Uncountable nouns do not normally have any boundaries; for example, water and accommodation are not contained in anything, though we might speak about ‘a cup of water’. In this case ‘cup’ is countable but ‘water’ is still uncountable.
- Uncountable nouns can also be abstract; examples of abstract nouns include love, friendship, comfort, and peace (If you cannot see, hear, touch, taste or smell a noun, it is an abstract noun.)
- Uncountable nouns almost never use a/an (Remember that a/an means one of the whole class of objects.)
Incorrect use of the indefinite article
Abstract nouns and the relationship with articles
Often, we refer to concrete nouns but in an abstract way.
Here are a few examples of how we refer to people, plants, inventions and devices in an abstract way.
Look at this paragraph and note how many times the word ‘truck’ is referred to in a concrete (countable) way and how many times it is referred to in an abstract way.
Abstract nouns and articles
Abstract nouns are often used without articles.
Because we are using the abstract nouns (above) in a general way; i.e., not referring to any particular love or luck or misery, there is no need for an article. However, there are times when we do need articles – when we are talking about a particular abstract idea.
The exercise on this page gives you a chance to apply your knowledge of articles to a piece of writing.
- Knowing when not to use articles may be more important than knowing when to use them.
- The general rules for articles are:
- Articles indicate whether the noun is a specific member of a group or is not a specific member of a group.
- Articles indicate whether the noun is expressing generalisations.
- Use a/an when you are referring to one of an entire class of people, things, ideas or events.
- Indefinite articles are used only with singular nouns.
- Indefinite articles are rarely used with proper nouns.
- Use the when the noun has been referred to in a previous sentence or when the writer and the reader both know which noun the writer is referring to.
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