One of my English tests required me to complete the gaps with words formed from the words in capital letters.

It is a love story about a man with a disorder that causes him to time travel unpredictably, and about his wife, an artist, who has to cope with his frequent _____ (ABSENT) and dangerous experiences.

I wrote "absence" there but was told it should instead be "absences" as it is used along with "frequent". Is saying "frequent absence" generally acceptable? Is it fine to use in this sentence? If not, why?

  • 1
    I'll have to reflect on the reasons for my intuition, but while the plural is arguably more standard or formal, I have no problem at all with the singular, and would read it as a simple elision / deletion of "... frequent absence [from class]".
    – Dan Bron
    Mar 2, 2016 at 12:46
  • 4
    Absence talks about the condition while absences talks about the episodes. Both fit, but each means something different.
    – Lawrence
    Mar 2, 2016 at 14:13
  • Some of the material is covered at What is the logic behind uncountable nouns?. Whether 'frequent' may be used with a non-count noun is a different issue. There are quite a few Google hits for "frequent absence" -"frequent absences"; these include an analysis of non-count nouns, and other linguistics articles! ("To conclude, it is ..... gogical grammars is the frequent absence of references to pragmatic meanings..." / "The frequent absence of correlation between pronunciation and spelling") Mar 2, 2016 at 15:08
  • "Frequent lack" similarly occurs quite often. Since the plural of the count-noun usage 'lacks' is quite rare, this might be expected. 'Frequent' seems to be used as a shorter form of 'frequently met with'. Mar 2, 2016 at 15:15

2 Answers 2


The most appropriate word for use in the example sentence is 'absenteeism', although I would argue that, considering the meaning of 'absenteeism', 'absence' would not be inherently wrong (with the sidenote that 'absenteeism' is perhaps less..ambiguous).

That said, 'absence' indicates a person's non-presence, there is no plural form of 'absence' to describe the fact that he, a single individual, is away, as far as I have been able to determine.

Wikipedia also holds some good information on the word and its usage.

Looking at 'absence' here, under Examples from the Web for absences, context appears to clearly show 'absences' being used to refer to the number of times or instances non-presence was observed.

In conclusion, 'absences' can be used with 'frequent', but it creates some ambiguity as to what exactly is being referred to (his absence, or the number of times he was absent), and leaving open the question of what his wife is trying to cope with exactly (his absence, or the number of times he is away).

  • Absence surely is a count noun, and I remember being castigated for my frequent absences in 10th grade, as each instance of truancy was counted separately. That is, missing Spanish class on Tuesday was one absence (failure to appear), missing Social Studies on Wednesday was another, distinct, absence, missing Spanish again on Thursday was yet a third absence, and so summed up at the end of the week, I had 3 absences, plural (and a very weak command of Spanish, to boot).
    – Dan Bron
    Mar 2, 2016 at 14:27
  • I see, but would this not be covered by the explanation Lawrence provided, where 'absences' would indicated the number of times you were absence, not the 'state of being absent' itself? Don't get me wrong, you may very well be right - I'm just trying to wrap my head around the subtle differences that I'm sure exist, but can't put my finger on.
    – Terah
    Mar 2, 2016 at 14:33
  • Yes, it would. The upvote on Lawrence's comment came from me, and I am waiting for someone to elaborate on and substantiate it in an answer proper (don't look at me: I'm not volunteering).
    – Dan Bron
    Mar 2, 2016 at 14:34
  • I'm still looking into getting a more solid foundation, but a good definition of 'absences' (from a trusted source) that really nails it appears to be somewhat elusive. In the meantime however, I feel that using the suggested alternative, a discussion is avoided altogether.
    – Terah
    Mar 2, 2016 at 14:39
  • So, 'absence' (uncountable) is a general state of a person/thing not being somewhere and 'absence' (countable) is the individual instance of a person/thing not being somewhere. Did I get it right? Mar 2, 2016 at 14:48

The two phrases/expressions you gave mean two different things.

Frequent Absence(infrequent presence) indicates that something is part of/included in another something, and that it might not always(infrequent presence) be there.

Frequent Absences(!) mean that the inclusion is also absent(optional), so sometimes(!) it is a part of something - but still can be missing. It's double the ambiguity.

In context of the example:

Absence, as someone being someone's husband/wife is a... "permanent" or consistent thing. It is not, and cannot be ambiguous - a clear, binary state, with no transition inbetween. Yes, frequent absence is acceptable, valid, and clear.

Example Sentence decomposition:

  • "It is a love story",
  • "About a man with a disorder that causes him to time travel unpredictably"
  • "And about his wife, an artist, who has to cope with his frequent absence and dangerous experiences".

So basically, a love story involving husband and wife, where the husband disappears and reappears at times while the wife is like a brooding artist and worries about stuff.

Experiences also took the plural out of absence. You can only experience one kind of absence - the act of not being there, not have several different experience of the act of not being there. You can only not be there in one way, not be there. Hence the frequent absence, and the experiences usage. There can be only one word in plural in a sentence, even if it's a loaded, compound, run-on sentence. and that was already given, with experiences. Only, and really the only exception to the rule is when a pluralized word is used as a singular object/entity in a sentence.

To rephrase the example, it would be: "Tale of a sick, endangered, unpredictably time travelling man, who has a wife that worries about him when he's absent." As in, during his Absence, or frequent absence. Of him not being there. Then being there, after experiencing danger/absence...

  • The link between the marriage and the frequent absence(s) from home does not seem apparent to me and raises further questions. If I were to link the absence with the period of time (time travel) then it comes out as "frequent absences".. so it seems the choice of countable and uncountable is essentially open to interpretation and both should be accepted? Mar 2, 2016 at 13:05
  • Yes, correct! Although, I'd want more context then, it can be either or - from the subject's point of view. Anyway, i digress.
    – Sakatox
    Mar 2, 2016 at 13:06
  • I feel like waiting out to see if someone else can further clarify the circumstances for choosing countable/uncountable for now, but I feel like I understand the point you are making. Mar 2, 2016 at 13:09
  • @ValterStrods I edited my answer just in case with a decomposition. Following the rules i know, and how things relate to each other, i think my answer is correct. Although yes, I too, wish to hear someone else (try to) explain it as well.
    – Sakatox
    Mar 2, 2016 at 13:24
  • What do you mean by saying "there can be only one word in plural in a sentence"? For example, take the sentence "Dogs and cats are animals." which has three nouns in plural there. Mar 2, 2016 at 13:43

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