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Simple question, which I'd like a simple (simple enough to explain to an ESL student) answer to.*

Is there a conference room?

Is there a non-smoking room?

Okay, so I have no problems with these. But then:

Is there Internet access?

Is there room service?

Why don't we use the indefinite article with these words (access and service)?

I've boiled it down to "they're both kinda nebulous things you can't count", but that doesn't help me much. Is it just that they are uncountable? Because I have a feeling I'm going to have a conversation like this:

Student: Why is "room service" not countable?

Teacher: Well, there are many services offered - food, laundry, cleaning. The word "service" covers many individual services.

Student: So why not call it "room services"?

Teacher: Ah, well, you see, that's because of - Goodness me, look out the window! Is that a tree?!

Similarly, why do we say:

Is there air conditioning?

I understand that some things are countable and some aren't, but in this case I'm having a hard time figuring out how to explain it to the student in a way that's vaguely logical. I don't want to have to say that it's just the way it is (like spellings and irregular verbs) unless I absolutely have to.


*I'm aware it almost never works this way, but I have my fingers crossed, so you never know.

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But it is the way it is just because it is the way it is. You can try to explain it away, but all of it would be justification in hindsight, as demonstrated by the fact that the exact same thing or concept can be uncountable in one language, but countable in another. Service, information, software, cheese — you name it.

There is no reason for "room service" to be "room service" and not "room services", or "purple car", or "khabarovski kray" — other than that out of these, "room service" is the one native speakers of English actually say. Likewise, air conditioning is not uncountable; much rather, it is uncountable in English, and it is uncountable in English at this moment in time.

And of course there is no reason for articles to exist in the first place. Now that we happen to use them, we can try to justify it by coming up with all kinds of reasons that make us feel all warm inside, but the fact of the matter is that you only started using articles because you heard your mother do it. But billions of mothers never used them, and their children are none the colder inside for it.

So by all means do notice that tree outside your window.

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