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Why don't we use the indefinite article with 'software'?

In France I have always been told that saying "a software" is not correct English (as a nominal compound), and that "a piece of software" or "a software program/package/product/system" must be used instead.

Recently I have doubts... is there any case where it is actually correct?

Examples found on the Internet:

  • SalsaJ, a software for data analysis at school
  • So if you sold a software which required your customer to pay a monthly fee, [...]
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Use "software application" or "software system" (or simply "application" or "system") if you want a singular form. –  BlueWhale Dec 21 '11 at 13:32
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It is very important, in English, to understand the distinction between things and stuff. Software is stuff. If you don't understand this, your write programs that say things like, "You see a sand here." –  David Schwartz Dec 21 '11 at 15:31
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If your native language is not English, then it may not be good trying to figure this out from the Internet, using things written by OTHERS whose native language is not English ... –  GEdgar Dec 21 '11 at 16:13
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marked as duplicate by Matt Эллен, Jasper Loy, Jim, Mitch, aedia λ Dec 21 '11 at 17:32

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4 Answers

up vote 33 down vote accepted

No, this is always wrong. Both examples you provide contain incorrect usage of the term "software." (A mistake is still a mistake even if many people make it.)

However, there might be special cases where you'd see the article preceding software.

For example:

A software solution would be better for the problem than a hardware one.

The indefinite article "a" modifies "solution", not "software", in this case in spite of preceding "software" in this case.

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Although it's wrong in the examples provided, it's not true to say that you can never use the article "a" followed by the word "software". The sentence "I think a software solution would be better than a hardware one" is perfectly valid, for example. –  Andy F Dec 21 '11 at 8:36
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In other words, only when the article "a" is not modifying software. (In your example, "a" and "software" are both modifying "solution".) In other words, never. –  sq33G Dec 21 '11 at 8:50
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@AndyF the original question calls "a software" a nominal compound. While the article "a" is not really forming a compound here with "software", I think the meaning of the question is clearly referring to the case where "a" is modifying "software", not another word that follows it. –  sq33G Dec 21 '11 at 11:57
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Well then, please forgive my lack of reading comprehension. –  Andy F Dec 21 '11 at 12:05
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“A mistake is still a mistake even if many people make it.” – I’m really not that happy with it. I agree in general but language does change. And it doesn’t change when we decide it does but when enough people change usage. I’m not sure that it’s happening in this particular case but it’s interesting that the frequency of usage of “a software” is almost on par with “a piece of software”. –  Konrad Rudolph Jan 5 '13 at 18:50
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Think of it this way: would you say "a tableware" or "a glassware"? The word "ware" means "commodity". Everything that applies to "tableware" and "glassware" also applies to "software".

The correct usage is "a piece of software" or something in that vein. I prefer "a program" or "a computer program" myself. Other alternatives are: an application, a computer application, an app, a software tool.

(FWIW: as a software developer myself, I assure you that devs never use the term "a software" when they communicate.)

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Yes, the same with "hardware". However, I've heard software developers (for whom English is a second language) incorrectly use "a software" and "softwares". –  Hugo Dec 21 '11 at 9:31
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+1 Good point about the "ware" suffix. –  LarsH Oct 31 '13 at 19:57
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It can be used correctly but not in the manner in which you have demonstrated.

Use in adjective form as in "A software package" is acceptable.

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Again (see AndyF's comment above to James McLoed's answer), here "a" is modifying "package", not "software". –  sq33G Dec 21 '11 at 11:58
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It is true that the use of 'a software' (in speech at least), as suggested in the OP has become rampant in recent times.

"What is MS Word?"
"I know. It's a software."

"This process takes too much time."
"There should be a software for this."

Which does NOT make it grammatically/ technically correct.

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4  
I have never heard this. At least not from a native English speaker. –  Groky Dec 21 '11 at 16:30
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@Groky Your experience isn’t really that relevant. What’s relevant is that it is widely used, as easily demonstrated by looking on Google ngram. –  Konrad Rudolph Jan 5 '13 at 18:48
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@Groky As most of the English-speakers are not native, "a software" is more and more used. Therefore I think "a software" could become accepted as correct in some decades. Google Ngram says "A software is" became in 2008 more common than "A software program is". But it is not yet the case using lowercase "a software is". Let's see... –  olibre Aug 6 '13 at 12:54
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