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I would like to know why the idiom "running like clockwork" is not written as "running like a clockwork"? Is there some common rule that explains this?

I am asking this question since I am not sure that this word is a mass noun, see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clockwork

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Because clockwork functions as a mass noun. It's much like flowing like water. So, it's "running like a clock", but "running like clockwork", just like it's "flowing like a river", but "flowing like water". By the way, had you asked this at English Language Learners, I would have left this as an answer, but, here on ELU, I think it's only worthy of a comment. –  J.R. Sep 10 '13 at 21:06
You're misparsing the expression - clockwork here isn't a noun in the first place. It's adjectival, as in a clockwork mechanism. Or running like crazy –  FumbleFingers Sep 10 '13 at 21:08
@FumbleFingers, I disagree with that. ‘Clockwork’ in this phrase doesn’t ‘feel’ adjectival to me, it feels entirely nominal. The ‘like’ in ‘running like crazy’ is semantically different (meaning ‘as if’, rather than ‘in the manner of’), and I’d call ‘a clockwork mechanism’ adjunctive more than adjectival. ‘Running like clockwork’ is parallel to ‘running like water’ to me, not to ‘running like crazy’. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 10 '13 at 21:49
@Janus: Personally, outside the specific set phrase like clockwork I'm only accustomed to using the word adjectivally (a clockwork timer, as opposed to an electronic timer, for example). So rightly or wrongly, that's how I interpret the set phrase. Using clockwork as a "mass noun" to mean "mechanical clock mechanisms in general", or whatever, seems a bit Victorian to me. –  FumbleFingers Sep 11 '13 at 2:43
@JanusBahsJacquet I have to agree with Fumble here: "clockwork" is an adjective that describes spring-and-gear technology based off of how clocks work. –  Izkata Sep 11 '13 at 2:44

2 Answers 2

up vote 13 down vote accepted

'Clockwork' is a mass noun, like 'water'. A clock does not have 'a clockwork' is just has 'clockwork' (like a river has 'water' not 'a water').

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Great examples! 8^) –  J.R. Sep 10 '13 at 21:20
Thank you! Indeed according to oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/clockwork this is a mass noun. I wonder now if there is a mistake on this wiki page: "A clockwork is the inner workings of ..." Why do they write "A clockwork..." ? :) –  Dmitri Sep 10 '13 at 21:31
@Dmitri - I suppose in that cause the author could try to argue that they were referring to all the clockwork as a whole (much like The Pacific Ocean is "a water"). I'm not sure your typical English paper grader would agree though. :-) –  T.E.D. Sep 10 '13 at 21:37
But a clockwork is the clockwork within a clock, while two clocks have two clockworks. right? –  npst Sep 10 '13 at 22:34
Like "A Clockwork Orange"? Heh. In that case, clockwork is actually an adjective, so no comparison. On the other hand "A clockwork is the mechanism behind the clock's face" is talking about a specific instance of a clockwork, not a genericized clockwork, and thus needs the indefinite article. –  Cyberherbalist Sep 10 '13 at 23:14

Clockwork is a noun that doesn't have to be instantiated in order to be used. Other examples of this include: "Slow as molasses", "Smooth as ice".

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