Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

As a native English speaker, I am often asked by friends and colleagues to correct their manuscripts. One of the most common mistakes I find is the use of the noun evidences. Now, the dictionary definitions I have read state that evidence is a mass noun, that it is not countable. For example, this one:

noun [mass noun]

the available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid:the study finds little evidence of overt discrimination

  • Law information drawn from personal testimony, a document, or a material object, used to establish facts in a legal investigation or admissible as testimony in a law court:without evidence, they can’t bring a charge
  • signs or indications of something:there was no obvious evidence of a break-in

However, I came across (don't ask me how) this article: 101 evidences for a young age of the earth and the universe

I had firstly assumed that this was either an outright error or at best a usage that is specific to christian literature, but upon further analysis things get more complicated. On the one hand, most google hits for evidences seem to be from the christian fundamentalist and/or creationist literature, on the other hand this article has collected multiple examples of its use citing such luminaries of the English language as William Shakespeare, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Indeed, this google NGram shows that evidences used to be quite common (note that I am searching for "many evidences" which should filter out most uses of evidence as a transitive verb):

enter image description here

Finally, I also found a definition which includes the following line:

(technical) The cave contained evidences of prehistoric settlement.

While I have encountered this use in technical literature (my field is Biology), it was always used by non-native authors in whose language, as is very often the case, evidence is probably countable (e.g. ES: evidencias, FR: évidences).

So, my question is, is evidence countable? The two quoted definitions contradict themselves. Evidences as a plural noun sounds horrible to my native's ear. Apparently, it is indeed a valid archaic usage but is it grammatical today? I don't have access to an unabridged OED or any other dictionary of similar status and quality, what do they suggest?

share|improve this question
1  
We have monies and waters so why not evidences? –  mplungjan Jul 8 '13 at 14:39
    
@mplungjan we also have fishes and cheeses, these are special cases to indicate different species of a mass noun. –  terdon Jul 8 '13 at 14:45
    
How about "findings in support of ..."? –  ak84 Jul 8 '13 at 17:24
1  
"Evidences" is also a verb. –  AJMansfield Jul 8 '13 at 20:45
    
Wiktionary returns a split decision: evidence (usually uncountable; plural evidences) –  Edwin Ashworth Jul 8 '13 at 21:48

4 Answers 4

up vote 10 down vote accepted

OED suggests that countable evidences are either obsolete, obsolescent or very specialised.

The countable entries are

†2. Manifestation; display. Obs.
3. a. An appearance from which inferences may be drawn; an indication, mark, sign, token, trace.

1860 J. Tyndall Glaciers of Alps i. xv. 99 A day..was spent in examining the evidences of ancient glacier action.

3. b. In religious language: Signs or tokens of personal salvation.

1758 S. Hayward Seventeen Serm. xvi. 493 A person just entering upon eternity..with his evidences all dark.

†4. Example, instance (frequent in Gower).
5. †b. an evidence: something serving as a proof.
5. c. Evidence or Evidences of Christianity , Evidences of the Christian Religion, or simply The Evidences.
6. a. Information, whether in the form of personal testimony, the language of documents, or the production of material objects, that is given in a legal investigation, to establish the fact or point in question. Also, an evidence = a piece of evidence.
†7. a. One who furnishes testimony or proof; a witness. Obs.
†7. b. transf. A spy. Obs.
†8. A document by means of which a fact is established. Obs. exc. Hist. and in legal formulæ.

Of the countable senses not marked as obsolete, 3, 5c and 6 are all specialised uses, and possibly obsolescent. The latest citations which are explicitly plural are 1860 and 1758 [there may be later uses; this is just what's included by OED], which would certainly indicate that usage could be expected to decline.

However, 3a does cover your quote about "evidences of prehistoric settlement". This would appear to be a valid specialised use, and the fact that it is specialised might explain the low incidence.

share|improve this answer
2  
Well, actually the OED doesn't say much about technical writing. 3a may have stopped being used in 1860, although your Ngram shows reasonably common use until 1920. It may be specialised, obsolescent or actually obsolete. However, 6a is still current in the legal profession. –  Andrew Leach Jul 8 '13 at 15:36
    
Ah, yes, sorry I'd missed that one. –  terdon Jul 8 '13 at 15:37
2  
@AndrewLeach I believe the current (online) OED has not yet revised the earliest parts (it started at 'M' and is moving cyclically forward); and the Supplements did little by way of marking 'new' obsolescences. So it is very likely that this is from OED 1. That fascicle was published in 1894, at which point the plural use,according to OP's Ngram, had not yet begun to decline. –  StoneyB Jul 8 '13 at 16:10
    
@Trevor, so "101 evidences" and "101 pieces of evidence" mean the same? –  user19148 Jul 8 '13 at 18:25
1  
@Carlo: they are meant to mean the same thing but 'evidences' in this usage is a solecism (ie wrong). Don't use it. –  Mitch Jul 9 '13 at 23:01

For what is worth, "Evidence is not generally taken to be a count noun; hence the plural form is unusual at best," Bryan A. Garner says (A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, 1998).

share|improve this answer

The evidence from NGrams strongly suggests the evidences is vanishingly rare today...

enter image description here

Obviously it's possible to pluralise the word, but if you're not sure of your ground then don't do it. And bear in mind that Shakespeare, Emerson, and Thoreau, for example, are all long-dead.

share|improve this answer
1  
Ah, nice, so my Ngram was probably getting confused by the verb. And don't worry, I never use it, dead poets notwithstanding. –  terdon Jul 9 '13 at 12:12
    
@terdon: Actually, I doubt your NGram was much influenced by verb usages. But to compare like with like you'd probably do better graphing many evidences,much evidence. Once you've made allowances for the fact that at least some of the more recent instances of the former will actually be quoting earlier texts (and mis-dated reprints), it becomes pretty clear there can hardly be any modern usages by comparison with much evidence. –  FumbleFingers Jul 9 '13 at 14:39

Irrespective of the degree of plausibility of the individual items of supposed evidence contained in the Creationist article, I don't find the plural usage of evidence unreasonable in the context of that article. It is actually more elegant than possible alternatives like pieces of evidence or items of evidence.

After all, nobody argues that the plural noun proofs is an unacceptable alternative to much proof: it is a useful term that is responding to a distinct need. Likewise with evidences.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.