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  • I am puzzled by conflicting opinion on a coffee.
  • I am puzzled by conflicting opinion on coffee.

These sentences are from a syllabus book. And I don't know which one is correct.

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Are you referring to coffee in general, or a particular type/genus/brand/cup of coffee? –  St John of the Cross Mar 27 '13 at 12:09
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It depends on context. 'a coffee': you're puzzled by a conflict over one particular coffee. Just 'coffee': you're puzzled by a conflict over coffee in general. –  Mitch Mar 27 '13 at 12:24
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coffee and mass nouns. Please rephrase your question so that there is enough context to answer it. –  Matt Эллен Mar 27 '13 at 13:03
    
Shouldn't it be "a conflicting opinion" or "conflicting opinions". While "opinion" can be a mass noun, I wouldn't use it as one in this sentence. And Ngrams seems to agree with me. –  Peter Shor Mar 27 '13 at 14:58
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If you are an English Learner, you might be interested in our sister site, English Language Learners. –  tchrist Mar 27 '13 at 16:27

1 Answer 1

Coffee is a mass noun, and therefore should not take an indefinite article. But there are constructions in English that exploit and extend this distinction.

In particular, if you do use a/an with a mass noun like coffee (tea, milk, rice, tofu, beef, etc), then you are referring to a particular kind (brand, variety, version, strain) of whatever that mass noun is.

I am puzzled by conflicting opinion on a coffee.
- means that it's a kind of coffee that you're talking about, not coffee in general.

I am puzzled by conflicting opinion on coffee.
- does not refer to any kind of coffee, but rather to all coffee.

(Note that this procedure can be applied to other kinds of mass nouns, besides food and drink;
but when it does apply to food and drink, the implications are automatically about eating and drinking)

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