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A quote from The Economist:

In Iraq failure to reach a similar security agreement led to the sudden and premature departure of all American forces.

Here we have two nouns which may be either mass or count according to Oxford Dictionary. One has a zero article (failure), the other takes THE (departure).

Filling in articles (which were pre-cut in a text editor), I've committed two mismatches with The Economist's version, as follows:

In Iraq *the failure to reach a similar security agreement led to *a sudden and premature departure of all American forces.

I thought that the noun "failure" here is a mass noun, yet modified enough (which failure? - "to reach a similar..") to merit the definite article.

Concerning the "departure", I'd consulted Oxford Dictionary which states that the word may be used as a count noun: "she made a hasty departure". Besides, the troops' departure may well be unknown to the reader, hence "A".

Assuming both nouns are mass nouns in this sentence, I have two questions:

  1. Can we still use "THE" with "failure"? Or does it need to have an "of-phrase" modifying it in order to take THE? ("..the failure of the government to reach..")

  2. Can we use zero article with "departure"? (despite the post-modification by an "of-phrase"; It seems to me that "of-phrases" are powerful inducers of THE-ification.)

And still it puzzles me why "departure" here cannot be a count noun, like in "she made a hasty departure".

share|improve this question
The count-uncount classification is far from clear cut. Would you say 'She made hasty departures on Monday and Thursday'? - I wouldn't. However, 'She made hasty departures from work on Monday and Thursday' sounds better to me. With failure / the failure, I'd be happy with either - inclusion of the definite article hints at something arrived at rather more quickly. Notice that there is a formulaic aspect that renders simple rules risky: They weighed anchor. *They weighed two anchors. (in the idiomatic sense, of course) ??He took two breakfasts. ??I had three listens to that new CD. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 24 '13 at 18:50
Thank you for the comment, Edwin! I did not understood the bit about the definite article before the "failure", i.e. what exactly it hints at. That the negotiations to reach an agreement failed soon after beginning? – CopperKettle Jul 25 '13 at 10:26
up vote 3 down vote accepted

Yes on both counts.

When you say you made two mistakes, I disagree. I guess your teacher is a grammar Nazi…

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Thanks, Lfd. I'm my teacher in fact. (0: – CopperKettle Jul 25 '13 at 10:11
So why to you say you made two mistakes where there are none at all? Different does not necessarily means wrong. – lfd Jul 25 '13 at 11:48
OK, maybe these are not mistakes; I'll call 'em "mismatches" then. I'm trying to enhance my "feeling" for the articles, because there are no articles in Russian and I sometimes make mistakes. – CopperKettle Jul 25 '13 at 11:54
Definetly not mistakes. – lfd Jul 25 '13 at 12:20

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