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I recently came upon the following sentence:

Their job is to create advertisement.

As a native speaker of American English, this sentence sounded really odd to me, so I ran it through Google's Ngram, discovering that the phrase "create advertisement" was not found (for either American or British English) as you can see from the image below:

I've also done some searches of Google web pages and have come to the same conclusion. So, I have further concluded that "advertisement" must be pluralized when not preceded by a definite article or adjective. (If I am incorrect in this assumption, please let me know.)

I wanted to explain to those who had created the sentence above (non-native speakers, presumably), from a grammatical or usage standpoint, why it wasn't correct, but my initial searches have not yielded anything worthwhile on this topic. I always feel as if I am somehow falling short on explaining the nuances of the English language whenever I have to fall back on the line, "Well, it just doesn't sound natural to me."

I've visited web pages that list words that are only plural and others that discuss when and when not to use an article with a singular or plural noun and still others that delve into the topic of count vs. non-count nouns, but, thus far, I have not seen anything that discusses nouns that need to be plural when not preceded by a definite article or adjective. I'm assuming "advertisement" isn't the only such word and that, if there are others like it, some sort of rule about their usage has evolved.

Thank you for any insight you can provide, either through your own knowledge of the English language, good logic, and/or references to other material.

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    I've come across some examples where "advertisement" doesn't have an article or adjective--most notably, the example in Merriam-Webster's definition of "advertisement:" "The company has spent a lot of money on advertisement." In all the examples I saw, including M-W's, "advertising" sounded more natural to me. Sadly, I can't answer your question about a rule, but will look forward to someone else's answer. – Katherine Lockwood Dec 15 '16 at 20:36
  • Their job is to create confusion: Our job is to create advertiSING. It has to have ING to be grammatical. OR: Our job is to create advertisementS. The activity is ING and the THING is ments. Sorry, no references, it's just in my head. – Lambie Dec 15 '16 at 22:05
  • By the way, I forgot to mention in my answer, but this notion of "sounds wrong in my head" is pretty robust. Whatever rules there are come from observing what native speakers feel is wrong or right, much as physical laws come from observing what happens in nature. Sometimes I feel like there isn't even really a rule at all: why can we say "I am friends with him" but not "I am brothers with him" or "I am spouses with her"? Because "friends" is special - no rule. – Roni Choudhury Dec 15 '16 at 22:38
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    The count/non-count issue has been dealt with before. For the particular noun advertisement, OALD licenses the non-count usage: [uncountable] the act of advertising something and making it public 'We are employing an assistant to help with the advertisement of the group’s activities.' However, in your example, 'advertising' would sound more natural. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 15 '16 at 22:59
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I actually think the answer is something you mentioned, count nouns vs. mass nouns.

Consider:

  1. Their job is to create sand.
  2. *Their job is to create sands.
  3. *Their job is to create a sand.

And:

  1. *Their job is to create beach.
  2. Their job is to create beaches.
  3. Their job is to create a beach.

"Sand" is a mass noun, meaning it doesn't generally take indefinite articles, and you don't generally pluralize it. I couldn't give the fundamental reason for this; any such explanation would probably just beg the question (e.g., in English we don't put the adjective before the noun for any logical reason; whatever reason we could give would be given in reverse order by an equally logical speaker of Spanish).

"Beach" on the other hand, is a count noun. In your example usage, it must take either an indefinite article, or be pluralized.

(Note that both words can be used with a definite article in your example, but the meaning is slightly different - it would refer to a previously defined quantity of sand, or a previously defined beach:

  1. Their job is to create the sand.
  2. Their job is to create the beach.)

Also, you can often use a "unit word" (which is itself a count noun) to convert a mass noun into a related count noun. For "sand" this word is "grain":

  1. Their job is to create grains of sand.

For "cattle" it's "head"; for water it could be "drop"; etc.

Finally, I should mention that you can pluralize mass nouns, or use them with an indefinite article, but that generally signals an implicit shift of meaning. A plural for a mass noun X may mean something like, "different kinds of X". In the (somewhat cliched) phrase, "sands of time", for example, the idea is that time produces shifts in the world, much as the wind does to the sand(s) of different deserts you might visit.

So, the final answer to the question of why the example sentence isn't ok comes down to irreducible rules about articles and mass nouns in English.

  • Non-count vs count noun usage has been covered in general numerous times on ELU. You don't add support for the non-count usage of 'advertisement' (given by OALD, for instance, though with an example arguably not exactly matching OP's). – Edwin Ashworth Dec 15 '16 at 23:03
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    Thank you all for the comments and answers. So many good ones, but I really loved this answer here, especially all of the examples provided. Plus, I provided the link to this thread to the presumably non-native English speakers and should they only read one answer, I think this one here would serve them best. Thank you again for the time you took to so thoroughly and clearly answer this. I think many will find it helpful. – Lisa Beck Dec 19 '16 at 5:57
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<tl;dr> I'm afraid you've reached an incorrect conclusion.</tl;dr>

The discussion starts by restricting ourselves to count nouns, those that come in discrete units that we can label with sequential numbers. Generally speaking, a singular count noun will take an article, definite or indefinite:

[1a] There is a dog in the backyard. (indefinite)
[1b] The dog is in the backyard. (definite)

In 1a it could be any dog; in 1b, it's likely the particular dog that we own.

For plural count nouns, we may drop the article for indefinite reference or keep it for the definite:

[2a] There are dogs in the backyard, and one of them appears to be a dingo. (indefinite)
[2b] The dogs in the backyard appear to be burying a body in the flower bed. (definite)

So far, simple enough, but English idiom allows for a singular count noun to refer to the entire collection of that noun, something that at first thought would seem to require the plural form.

[3a] The house smells unpleasantly of wet dog.
[3b] The dog is man's best friend.

In 3a dog is singular, but the objectionable odor isn't associated with any one dog, but with dogs in general. In 3b dog remains singular but our friends are the entirety of Canis familiaris and not any particular dog in spite of the definite article.

So now to your particular question -- is the word advertisement a count noun that allows some collective sense of the singular without an article (as in 3a for dog) or does the absence of the article require the plural form? With the help of the OED, we can trace the history of the word in English. In the 15th and 16th centuries the word had the meanings of attention (that is, turning one's mind to a topic), calling something to the attention of others, notification, and a written notice of notification. The first three senses allowed advertisement as a noncount noun; the fourth did not. The first three senses became obsolete, and the fourth became a public notice (first use 1582) and thence our familiar paid, commercial notice.

At this point, without the article, the word appeared in the plural. There was no need for a singular collective sense because there was already a serviceable word advertising (1530) that meant notification and that became (by 1760) the term for the business of general commercial notices.

As the 20th century turned, the OED noticed that the idiom also turned, and the singular advertisement became a synonym of advertising. No less a source than James Joyce attests in Ulysses (1922):

The infinite possibilities hitherto unexploited of the modern art of advertisement

The Ngram viewer will provide more recent examples of the language of advertisement, the evolution of advertisement, and the cost of advertisement, et al. By advertisement is also idiomatic.

Alas, I can find no general rule for determining when dropping the article requires a plural. The journey of advertisement in English would indicate that idiom develops with the vagaries of usage.

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