The term in context:

Mr Obama and his daughter Sasha, 14, walk across a tarmac in New York on Friday.

Shouldn't it be

walk across tarmac


walk across the tarmac


walk across a road/footpath.

I would think that tarmac is not a word to be preceded with 'a'.

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    Indeed. What is "a tarmac"? As far as I'm concerned tarmac is a surfacing material. but it wouldn't have been much better had the writer said ...walk across some tarmac. Surely the place that is tarmac surfaced has a name or description e.g. car park, taxi-way, etc. – WS2 Jul 23 '15 at 16:05
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    'the tarmac' is the large concrete or asphalt area where all the planes are parked and then taxi out to the runway. 'a tarmac' is an unspecified one. It sounds strange because presumably one just doesn't show up to any tarmac at random, but that the airport has been or is expected to be specified. – Mitch Jul 23 '15 at 17:09
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    In this case it is likely the location either was unknown or could not be specified, e.g. for security reasons. – Lorne Laliberte Jul 23 '15 at 19:04
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    Tarmac becomes countable when used INCORRECTLY to describe airport aprons, "ramps", and runways. – Mazura Jul 23 '15 at 21:55
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    @jamesqf What I said was american usage. I can't speak for BrE. I'm reading the artice as an American and my decription is consistent with that. I don't see anything about a road or footpath in the article. The picture there is of what I would call 'the tarmac' in AmE. (but AmE also allows tarmac as the material). So I'm confused by what you're saying. Are you saying that 'ramp' is the BrE way of saying where to park airplanes or a more technical term for parking area in AmE? – Mitch Jul 24 '15 at 1:21

Oxford Dictionaries Online specifically references the tarmac

(the tarmac) A runway or other area surfaced with tarmac.

Similarly Collins

a runway at an airport: on the tarmac at Nairobi airport

The examples given are for discrete items or examples of a particular tarmac, not a reference to an undefined mass of material, such as pass me the sugar

It appears that tarmac can be a countable noun, and as such you should be able to use a tarmac. Consider the plural usage.

On tarmacs round the world, new technology is improving their durability.

This is different from the usage of the definite article with an uncountable noun. When referring to activities at several airports on the ground cannot be made plural (grounds means something different); on the tarmacs can be, although the singular mass usage could also work.

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    You give examples of "the tarmac", I'm asking about using "a tarmac". Do you think "a tarmac" is correct? – user4485 Jul 23 '15 at 16:10
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    Countable like "earth" (so, "walk across an earth")? That doesn't seem right to me. I think "the tarmac" means runway only when it includes "the" (as the definition indicates). Without the "the" it is just a material that runways and roads are covered in. – Avon Jul 23 '15 at 16:10
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    Surely "the" does not imply countability, but the fact that the definition includes "a" does imply countability. – phoog Jul 23 '15 at 16:58
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    @Avon only countable nouns can be pluralized (some uncountable nouns can be pluralized but only in countable senses, for example beer.). Besides, "tarmac" is a synonym for "paved area of an airport" despite the fact that they are [never paved in actual tarmac](en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Tarmac). – phoog Jul 23 '15 at 18:22
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    @Avon "a pavement" is certainly countable in the British sense in which it denotes what an American would call "a sidewalk." – phoog Jul 23 '15 at 19:49

In the example you quoted, "a tarmac" is fine. Whether it should be "tarmac" instead of "a tarmac" depends on the intended meaning, specifically whether the author was referring to the type of material ("walked across tarmac") or the type of location ("an airport tarmac").

Normally you would use "the tarmac" when referring to a specific tarmac, however in this case it is using an ambiguous reference, similar to "an airport tarmac" or "any airport's tarmac." It seems no different to saying "a road" to me. Tarmac is definitely countable when referring to a type of location.

  • There is more than one photo in the article. – Lorne Laliberte Jul 27 '15 at 15:13

This is just an idomatic British usage and could be read as such:

"Mr Obama and his daughter Sasha, 14, walk across a tarmac[ed area] in New York."

I can't back this up with any real non-anecdotal sources other than the fact that I am a native British English speaker who lives in the UK, but it has a relatively common history in British English usage according to a Google Ngram, with usage seeming to peak in the 50s and again recently. Furthermore, American usage is by no means nonexistent.

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    As a native Brit, I've never heard "a tarmac" before in my life. And it's clearly not as common as "the tarmac" – AndyT Jul 23 '15 at 16:20
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    @Andy, As a native Brit, I've heard it many times. Also I never stated it was more common than 'the tarmac,' just not uncommon. – Jascol Jul 23 '15 at 16:21
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    As a native Brit, not only have I never heard this usage, but it's so non-standard I don't think I'd have accurately guessed what it might mean without the picture to help (my guess would have bean "crossed the road"). It sounds like nonsense gibberish. – Nye Jul 23 '15 at 21:02
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    I don't think it means crossed the road. I think they're talking about the tarmac at an airport. There are multiple pictures in the article, and some of them do show airports. – Peter Shor Jul 24 '15 at 2:36

I think there's room for disagreement here.

This usage of tarmac almost always appears as the tarmac, and refers to the paved area of an airport intended for airplanes to stand/taxi on. English speakers hear this, and then (unconsciously) classify tarmac as either a mass noun or a countable noun. But there are two possible ways to do this.

  • Tarmac is a countable noun, and means the paved area at an airport. Each airport only has one tarmac, but if you are talking about multiple airports, there are multiple tarmacs. This is analogous to the word statehouse in American English. A statehouse is the building containing the seat of government of an American state, and there is only one per state. As a result, you almost always hear the statehouse and not a statehouse or statehouses. However, despite this, it is manifestly clear that the word statehouse is countable.

  • Tarmac is an uncountable noun, and means the paving surface at an airport. This is analogous to the ground. You can say you dropped your wallet on the ground, but you can't say "I must have dropped my wallet on a ground", even if you don't know which of various islands your dropped you wallet on.

The reporter clearly has internalized the first interpretation, and because he isn't specifying whether Obama and his daughter saw the Manhattan skyline from the tarmac at Newark, Laguardia, or JFK airport, says "a tarmac". Somebody who had internalized the second interpretation would have said "the tarmac".

Which is "correct"? I don't think there's any way to decide.


On the link quoted in the question it does not appear that the President is indeed at an airport. There is a large tree adjacent to him, and park benches. Thus the discussion about whether airports have one or more tarmacs doesn't seem to apply here.

Mr Obama and his daughter Sasha, 14, walk across a tarmac in New York on Friday.

For me that sounds awkward. How many tarmacs are there in the vicinity?

He also doesn't appear to be walking across it, but rather along it. I would have written:

Mr Obama and his daughter Sasha, 14, walk along a footpath in New York on Friday.

(substitute "sidewalk" for "footpath" if you want)

Later in the article the author says:

Afterwards my colleagues and I head across the tarmac to an Osprey aircraft, propellers spinning.

Just as a guess, this is a simple typo by the journalist. At one point it is "a" tarmac, later in the same article it is "the" tarmac (although admittedly this time at an airport).

(Edited to add)

Now that Peter Shor has cleared up that the first photo does not relate to the sentence underneath it, I am going to vote for the "the tarmac". In much the same way you might say you saw something "lying on the ground" (rather than "lying on a ground") I suggest "the tarmac" is better.

You could qualify it (eg, "a football ground") in which case "a" is better. In the same way you could say "an airport tarmac" (as opposed to, say, a school ground tarmac).

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    There are multiple pictures in that article, and several of them do show airport tarmacs. The top one (which probably should have been of the tarmac, given the order of events in the article) looks to me like Central Park. The BBC simply put the pictures in the wrong order. – Peter Shor Jul 24 '15 at 2:29
  • Ah OK. Well I'm going to go with the tarmac in much the same way you say someone is walking along the ground not a ground. – Nick Gammon Jul 24 '15 at 2:32
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    And in fact, the article says that Obama points out Manhattan to his daughter from the tarmac; you can see the Manhattan skyline quite well from JFK and Newark airports, but not from Central Park (which is my guess at where the first picture was taken). – Peter Shor Jul 24 '15 at 2:40
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    @PeterShor More precisely, he taps her shoulder and points towards Manhattan, which wouldn’t be possible at all if they were in Central Park at the time, ’cause he’d already be in Manhattan. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 24 '15 at 12:32

Tarmac is not countable, and I've only ever heard it referred to as 'the tarmac'. If someone said 'a tarmac' I would wonder if they knew what tarmac was. In a given context, there is only ever one tarmac, even if there are several pieces of bitumenised (or whatever that stuff is) surface in the location. It functions a bit like 'the red carpet', or 'the catwalk' or perhaps even 'the toilet' - a building may have many countable toilets, but we don't say that someone has 'gone to a toilet'.

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    However, we do quite happily say, “Is there a toilet nearby?” and the like. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 23 '15 at 17:10
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    The thing is that "tarmac" is a synonym for "paved area of an airport" despite the fact that they are never paved in actual tarmac. In that sense, it is countable. – phoog Jul 23 '15 at 18:30
  • @phoog - What do you mean, "never paved"? A gravel footpath is "paved". – Hot Licks Jul 24 '15 at 1:41
  • @HotLicks I mean that they are never paved in tarmac, just as I am never dressed in deerskin. That is, they are always paved in something other than tarmac. – phoog Jul 24 '15 at 1:52
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    I've always heard people talk about "the statehouse" (the seat of government in an American state), and never about "a statehouse" or "statehouses". But this doesn't mean that "statehouse" is an uncountable noun. – Peter Shor Jul 24 '15 at 2:33

No it is not correct. tarmac is not countable (reference: oxford learner's dictionary). This means that phrases like "a tarmac" or "two tarmacs" are incorrect.

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    How is tarmac not countable? Definition 2 of the link you provided and this first noun definition both suggest it. In my experience, "a tarmac" is synonymous with an airport's runway, i.e., The airport has three tarmacs to handle traffic. – VampDuc Jul 23 '15 at 16:44
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    It may be unusual to use tarmac in this way, but it's no more grammatically incorrect than it is to say have a discussion over a coffee. – choster Jul 23 '15 at 17:09
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    This answer is quite simply put incorrect. Using tarmac as a count noun is far less common than using it as a non-count noun, but it is by no means ungrammatical or unheard of. There are plenty of examples floating around with constructions like “Work crews have cleared city roads and re-opened highways, and the airport is pretty much back to normal, with all three tarmacs working on Tuesday” (CNN) or “He was moved to tears by the huge crowds at both tarmacs” (link). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 23 '15 at 17:19
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    If you're using it as jargon for a runway, like they do in airports it is countable. However the proper sense of the word is shorthand for the material the runway is comprised of, which is tarmacadam. Contingent materials usually aren't countable, unless there are multiple noteworthy varieties to blend for the purpose of imparting qualities, which is an entirely different context. This practice is similar to calling multiple dirt roads, three dirts or multiple paved roads, three asphalts, which if done, likely isn't standard English. – Tonepoet Jul 23 '15 at 17:37
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    Ah, oops. I'm sorry for the confusion: I meant continuous, rather than contingent which makes no sense. As long as I'm clarifying, I also mean that more-so in the sense that it can be considered continuous, rather than if it really is. Discrete objects are different, especially if it's holdable, as you have shown with glass cups, although I haven't seen weaponized steel pluralized (taste my steel, steel against steel). As far as things you actually walk across, the only exception I can think of now is a carpet (building material), which is arguably a discrete object made mostly out of fabric. – Tonepoet Jul 24 '15 at 14:46

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