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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?

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We have monies and waters so why not evidences? –  mplungjan Jul 8 '13 at 14:39
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@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
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Wiktionary returns a split decision: evidence (usually uncountable; plural evidences) –  Edwin Ashworth Jul 8 '13 at 21:48
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This page gives a number of quotations (albeit mainly old ones) including the word "evidences". And this one (bottom right-hand corner) tracks its usage over time and shows its frequency as increasing, albeit still very small. –  TrevorD Jul 8 '13 at 22:49
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This question is based on a miconception. –  Kris Oct 31 at 16:30

6 Answers 6

up vote 13 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.

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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
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@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
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@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).

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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.

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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.

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I got some examples:

We can disbelieve the evidences of our senses, we can suspend disbelief, as well as believing the world is such-and-such with no sensory evidence at all.

If Christ has not risen from the grave of our lives, from our doubts, fears, from our personal deaths, then all the so-called evidences of the resurrection are of no consequence except as props.

It is as though all the proofs and evidences of philosophy had mistaken their rationality for how people actually think.

Paley, William (1743–1805) Though highly skilled as a lecturer in mathematics and ethics, Paley is best-known for his Evidences of Christianity , published in 1794, and for his Natural Theology published in 1802.

Mining activity nearby was the cause of its abandonment in the 1950s, when evidences of subsidence became apparent.

I THINK THE PLURAL FORM IS CORRECT.

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Could you post the links, or say where you found these quotes from. Use the editor tool to place the citations in quotes, or just add an < before each line (you might need to add a space afterwards.) If you look at the top scoring answer, you'll see what I mean. Thank you. –  Mari-Lou A Nov 2 at 11:05
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Yes, without references, these are just random sentences made up by some guy on the internet. In any case, I know it is used, and if you read the rest of the answers you'll see that it used to be common but is now considered obsolete in most contexts. –  terdon Nov 2 at 13:25

Does the noun pass the 'silly' test? A countable noun should not sound silly when a numeral immediately precedes it. e.g., 1 evidence, 2 evidences (this is silly). 1 car. 2 cars (this is not silly). Uncountable nouns usually come in 'containers'. The weight of evidence; two cans of coffee, 3 loaves of bread. 4 bottles of wine, and so on. The containers are countable but not the contents.The 'weights of evidence' would be wrong because 'evidence' is an abstract concept. We can't touch 'evidence' but 'types of evidence' such as hair samples, photographs, documents are countable.

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3847, I don't think the "silly" test and the "abstract" test are terribly useful. To wit, the words "concept", "idea" and "moral" are abstract concepts but pluralize nicely. –  Marie CD Oct 31 at 14:55
    
Marie CD, "Set 'em up barkeep! I'll have 3 concepts, 4 ideas and a half-pint of morals'!" –  user3847 Nov 1 at 3:33

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