Even though the second one seems right, is the first one totally wrong? It sounds ok to me. Correct me if I am wrong. Please explain if possible. Thanks. :)


Someone recollects a proverb that he/she read somewhere. I am intending to praise this person. So which usage would be apt for the situation?

  • If we place the interrogative mark, the phrase What memory? makes more sense. what is an interrogative pronoun. The phrase is asking a question about "memory", maybe the speaker is doubting its existence in a person's recollection. More context is needed. With the exclamation mark and the indefinite article a, What a memory! the speaker might be extolling a person's prodigious memory e.g. "What a memory! He has the memory of an elephant" – Mari-Lou A Mar 18 '15 at 7:08
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    Related: What a weather vs. What weather – Mari-Lou A Mar 18 '15 at 7:32
  • @Mari-LouA I have added the context. Please check. – GoGreen Mar 18 '15 at 8:09
  • My natural instinct would lead me to choose the second.Effectively you are saying "Wow! How did/could you remember/know that proverb?" – Mari-Lou A Mar 18 '15 at 8:14

Neither is wrong. They just mean different things.

“What memory!” refers to "memory" as a general concept.

If someone remembered things very well, you might say "What memory!" to mean "What (good) memory (you have)!"

“What a memory!” refers to a specific memory.

If someone told you a story, you might say "What a memory!" to mean "What a (good) memory (you have just talked about)!"

Edit: As noted in the comments, you could say "What a memory!" to refer to the general concept of memory as well. The example would be similar to "What a (good) memory (you have)!"

  • 2
    "What a memory!" does not necessarily refer to remembering a pleasant incident in the past. – Mari-Lou A Mar 18 '15 at 7:27
  • That's true. I was just trying to give examples of use. "What a memory!" could also refer to the general "memory" as in the first example. – Delia Mar 18 '15 at 7:40
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    I'm not happy that the non-count usage of memory is ever used in this way ('What memory you have.') I think it would always be 'What a memory [you have].' You'd never say 'What mind she has.' – Edwin Ashworth Mar 18 '15 at 8:34
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    I don't mean to criticize but: "If someone remembered things very well, you might say "What memory!" No. Without the article "a" that phrase sounds weird within that context. It's "I have a good memory for numbers" NOT "I have good memory for numbers" – Mari-Lou A Mar 18 '15 at 9:42
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    I agree entirely with @Edwin here. “What memory!” as an exclamation is just not used in any context. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 18 '15 at 10:19

The second is correct if referring to a singular instance of memory. If you were impressed by someone's ability to remember, that would be singular and again the second form is correct there.

If you were referring to many memories rather than a specific memory, you would use the plural "what memories!" (for example, when referring to an entire year "1986, ah the memories!").

The first version ("what memory!") could be taken as sarcasm, even with the exclamation mark. It could be used colloquially if someone referred to a memory you had of something, and you wanted to convey that you didn't actually remember the occasion that they were referring to.

  • I've upvoted this answer, because it's correct, and I liked the interpretation for "What memory!" – Mari-Lou A Mar 18 '15 at 9:53
  • But this ("what memory!" taken as sarcasm) doesn't fit in with OP's intended sense. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 18 '15 at 17:24
  • @EdwinAshworth the OP edited his question after this answer was posted. The OP originally asked only if "What memory!" was incorrect. – Mari-Lou A Mar 18 '15 at 20:18
  • @Mari-LouA I had only added extra content to my question. The context that you had asked for. I appreciate all answers but unlike mentioned here, I had no intention of sarcasm. I find the first answer to be most fitting. – GoGreen Mar 19 '15 at 3:26

The term memory is both a countable and uncountable/mass noun.
When we speak about one's capacity or ability to retain information we can speak about having
a "memory" for something. The OD provides these examples of usage

I’ve a great memory for faces
She still has a great memory for all the old Irish songs and poems.

We can have one or more memories of the past

(sing) What happened during that week was just a bad memory in the past
(pl) I have no recollection of my past memories, except periodic flashbacks of my previous life.

The noun memory is singular when it means "mind". It is not generally used in the plural.

(sing) Williams searched his memory, trying to remember what he did in this situation eleven years ago.

It is a mass noun when we are remembering or honouring the life of a dead person.

A candlelit vigil took place in Huyton last night, one week after the alleged assault, to honour the dead teenager's memory

and when we speaking about a certain length of time

After one of the most hectic holiday seasons in recent memory, many of us have settled in for equally hectic work schedules.

If we were speaking about our childhood, and we retold delightful stories about our past the listener might say

  1. What lovely memories you have!

Which could be shortened to

  1. What memories!

If we were speaking about a single incident that happened over fifty years ago, when we were three years old. The listener would exclaim in admiration.

  1. What a great memory you have!
  2. What a memory!

The phrase might refer to the actual recollection or to the speaker's capacity to remember something that happened so long ago.

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    I don’t think memory is a mass noun as such when remembering or honouring someone who’s died—it’s just only used in the definite. You can still pluralise it, though: “We are gathered here to honour the memories of all those brave soldiers who died fighting for their country”. It’s closer to a mass noun in certain fixed prepositional phrases: reciting from memory, doing something in memory of someone, and indeed in recent memory. Apart from that niggle, this is the only answer that correctly answers the question, hence my upvote. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 18 '15 at 10:05
  • @JanusBahsJacquet thank you. I think though in the citation taken from OD you would never use the plural form e.g. "to honour Churchill's memory" and not "memories" which would mean something quite different. But your example does illustrate how the plural might be used because you are speaking about "the memory" of each soldier. – Mari-Lou A Mar 18 '15 at 10:15
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    Exactly—if there are many people, there can be many memories to honour. “We honour his memory” ~ “We honour their memory” [if seen as a group] ~ “We honour their memories” [if seen as individuals]. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 18 '15 at 10:17

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