1: There is a reluctance on the part of European companies to buy from American sources.
2: There is an emphasis on the organic roots of spirituality.
3: There is a tendency to make the distinction between 'art' and 'entertainment' too rigid.
4: There is a sense that something about the suggestion is incoherent

I feel there must be more to this than simply "idiomatic preference". What is it about the first two examples that allows (but doesn't require) an article? And that requires an article in the other two?

And are there any similar constructions where the presence/absence of the article affects meaning?

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    Isn't it that reluctance and empahsis are capable of being mass nouns, and the other two aren't? – Andrew Leach Jun 13 '13 at 21:26
  • @Andrew: It may be there is wisdom in your words. But whereas wisdom is undeniably a "typical" mass noun, I couldn't possibly include an article there. How come the article apparently becomes optional (but meaningless) with reluctance and emphasis? – FumbleFingers Jun 13 '13 at 21:43
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    @FF How about: There is a wisdom in Andrew's comment that I don't see in FF's response. – TrevorD Jun 13 '13 at 23:19
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    @TrevorD: There is {a} subtlety here that merits further investigation! Curiously, I find that although as a "standalone" sentence, There is a wisdom here doesn't really do it for me, I can just about tolerate There is a subtlety here. There aren't enough of either in Google Books to draw any conclusions though. But I do have the feeling you can include the article with certain abstract nouns more readily if the sentence goes on to define the "particular" instance of that abstraction. – FumbleFingers Jun 14 '13 at 0:05
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    Fumble, FWIW in the Italian language is exactly the same: in 1 & 2 article is optional, but not meaningless, while in 3 & 4 article is required. I know the difference, but I cannot explain. If this site were been IL&U the question would have been an interesting one. In any case +1. – user19148 Jun 14 '13 at 6:11

It really does come down to mass nouns. Putting an article in is more specific and you can then quantify rather than generalise.

Taking reluctance as an example, if you can specify a reluctance then it is "a reluctance". "A reluctance" cannot signify more than one reluctance. If you say "there is reluctance" (without the article), that could mean there is more than one reluctance. So they are certainly not exactly the same in meaning.

  • I think this is a somewhat circular argument. In my first example, whatever "reluctance" is being referenced must surely be the same one, whether it's preceded by an article or not. And including it or not implies nothing at all about whether there might be any "other reluctances" (whatever that might mean). – FumbleFingers Jun 20 '13 at 0:28
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    Granted, but the point I am making is that if you wanted to write about a specific reluctance, you would have no choice but to use the article, therefore the two cannot be considered interchangeable even if you can get away with it in some idiomatic circumstances. Does that make sense or am I talking out of my hind quarters? :) – Sam Jun 20 '13 at 0:35
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    While it sounds circular, if "the reluctance" was that "prices are too high" then that would be one of potentially many reluctances which would fit "there is reluctance" along with potentially more. If there is simply "a reluctance" this suggests that there is not more than one". There is cheese that smells. There is a cheese that smells. The first one is general, but does not specify. The second invites particular references. – Sam Jun 20 '13 at 0:57
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    Well, I hope nobody downvotes your answer! In the end, it comes down to an attempt to explain the "optional article" cases by saying there's a difference in meaning. Personally, I don't think that's true, so I won't upvote. But my guess is there's something about the "generic" meaning of certain nouns that allows the article to be optional in my construction, whereas it's required with other nouns, so I don't think you're completely off the mark. At this stage in the game, just about any answer is welcome! – FumbleFingers Jun 20 '13 at 1:42
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    I'm with FF on this. I started to disagree when you said "if 'the reluctance' was that 'prices are too high' then that would be one of potentially many reluctances which would fit 'there is reluctance'". Prices are too high is not a 'reluctance': it may be the reason - or one of several reasons - for the reluctance. But it is not - and cannot be - (a) 'reluctance'. There is only one 'reluctance' in question, namely "the reluctance of European companies to buy from American sources." Consequently, your subsequent discussion about 'multiple reluctances' is moot. – TrevorD Jun 20 '13 at 23:59

While I understand the example sentences perfectly, they go beyond my skills at diagramming them. Maybe we should ask this over at English Language Learners. :-) I'm not posting this as the definitive answer, just trying to help us all get closer to one.

I believe it hinges on whether or not the word can be considered a quality that can reasonably be considered to be a mass noun or not. Consider

There is ___ evident in his recent actions.

  • reluctance fits fine
  • emphasis is borderline but at least arguably acceptable
  • tendency does not fit
  • sense only fits with the meaning "a sane attitude" but not with the meaning "a feeling that something could be the case"

I think that if you diagram the sentence "There is reluctance on the part…" versus "There is a reluctance on the part…" you will end up with significantly different diagrams.

  • Perhaps we need to extend reluctance, emphasis with a few more examples of "ambivalent" words. I'm not saying you're wrong here, but it doesn't exactly help that the reasoning only applies to one of the two examples I happened to come up with. I agree with you that #2 looks a bit "incomplete" out of context up there, but I think if you click the link and look at it in context, you might not have such a problem with it (I don't). – FumbleFingers Jun 16 '13 at 4:20
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    I had also wondered whether Ex.2 was really appropriate without the article, but having now looked at the source, I agree with FF that it would seem acceptable in context. – TrevorD Jun 16 '13 at 10:38
  • @Fumble, I looked at the link before writing the answer. All I found was "Others who will benefit... include those... who wish to know more about a growth-oriented approach which includes *a robust emphasis* on the role of healthy spirituality for total well being." I would not accept that without the article. It includes an emphasis on the role… or it emphasizes the role…. – Old Pro Jun 16 '13 at 19:37
  • I don't understand that. Here's a link to the single Google Books result for an emphasis on the organic roots. Both that and the preceding "paragraph" start with There is an emphasis..., but you might say they're "atypical" because each paragraph starts with a hyphen. Four paragraphs further down, though, the second sentence starts with that same text, in a context where I can't see it makes any difference whether the article is present or not. – FumbleFingers Jun 16 '13 at 20:47
  • @Fumble, Google search results vary from user to user. The link in your comment above only shows me a link to this very question and no other results. Either way, it would be more helpful if you found examples using some other words than the 4 we've been discussing. – Old Pro Jun 16 '13 at 21:15

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