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Which of the phrases is correct and why? "This document assumes a general familiarity with ..." or "This document assumes general familiarity with ..." Google search gives me approximately equal distribution of occurrences, so I don't know which one is better. Would greatly appreciate your assistance.

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In OP's specific case, I think omitting the article is fine (as she says herself, both versions occur about equally).

But in related variants like "I assume you have a firm grasp of English grammar", you actually need the article, to sound like a native. So if you're not sure in any given case, include a/an.

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David Crystal, probably Britain's most renowned linguist, has written a helpful article on this thorny issue.

Crystal refers to Quirk's (A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language) analysis of when the indefinite article can be used in front of a modified uncountable noun. Crystal cites Quirk as follows:

The conditions under which a/an occurs in such cases are unclear.

However, there are two useful patterns that Quirk has identified. Firstly, it seems that the article is used if the noun "refers to a quality or other abstraction which is attributed to a person." So,

This document assumes a general familiarity with ...

is fine because familiarity is a quality attributed to a person. But the indefinite article is not correct in the following:

*We made an important progress ...

since progress is not such a personal attribute.

Secondly, Crystal summarises Quirk as follows:

... the greater the amount of premodification or postmodification, the more likely we will find the indefinite article.

She played the oboe with sensitivity.

?She played the oboe with a sensitivity.

She played the oboe with a great sensitivity.

She played the oboe with a great and engaging sensitivity.

She played the oboe with a sensitivity that delighted the critics.

She played the oboe with a great and engaging sensitivity that delighted the critics.

Crystal then goes on:

Having said all that, I'm not entirely sure which uncountables follow these trends. The semantic criterion (personal attribution) is inevitably a bit fuzzy. Is plagiarism included, for example? Would you accept The teacher discovered a fresh plagiarism? I think there might be quite a lot of divided usage here.

The basic advice I get from this for English language learners is they should be aware of Quirk's two "rules". And in fuzzy cases such as plagiarism neither use nor non-use of the indefinite article is likely to have native speakers throwing up their hand in horror at an egregious grammar mistake.

http://david-crystal.blogspot.de/2013/03/on-uncountability.html

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  • Shoe, thank you for such a detailed answer! I'd love to give you a vote up, but I haven't yet earned enough reputation to do so. The answer to my question seems to boil down to "develop your gut feeling of the language and use it" :) – user2429471 Jul 19 '13 at 5:52

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