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Normally, if a word is generally uncountable ("English vocabulary"), but sometimes it becomes countable to convey particularity or variety ("the many vocabularies of various English dialects"), it'll be labeled as [U, C] in the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, or as [uncountable or countable] in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. The noun leave is, thus, only uncountable, as it's only labeled as [U] and [uncountable]. I even consulted Wiktionary, and it's still labeled as uncountable, with no plural form given. And yet, this Wikipedia page employs a host of singular and plural forms of leave of absence.

So could leave of absence ever be countable and take a singular form as a leave of absence and a plural form as leaves of absence?

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    But though "leave of absence" is a set phrase, it is not strictly speaking a compound, not a single word, therefore it is neither a count noun nor a non-count noun, but a composite nominal with "leave" as head and "of absence" as its complement. It can be pluralised: "leaves of absence", but grammatically it's no different to innumerable similar examples of noun + of PP complement, like "cup(s) of tea" or "head(s) of state,
    – BillJ
    Commented Apr 15, 2017 at 12:17
  • I googled the phrase, "a leave of absence", I got 1,660,000 results. This means something, doesn't it?
    – JayHook
    Commented Apr 15, 2017 at 12:38
  • @BillJ Actually the phrase "leave of absence" is the only one I'm aware of to have a whole Wikipedia dedicated to it with various uses of "a leave of absence" and "leaves of absence". It's just the easiest one to find significant counter-examples of. Yes, it all comes down to the countability of the word "leave" alone. Commented Apr 15, 2017 at 14:00
  • Note that 'be countable' and 'exist in plural form' are not equivalent. 'Clothes' is plural-form but non-count. 'Police' is singular-form, non-count in general usage, but takes plural agreement. You need to distinguish 'plural-form' and 'taking a plural verb-form'. Commented Apr 15, 2017 at 17:09
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    "Police" is a quasi-count noun. It cannot be used with low numerals, but is found with high round numerals. So you can say "200 police arrived", but not *3 police arrived".
    – BillJ
    Commented Apr 17, 2017 at 6:26

1 Answer 1

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Yes, the noun phrase leave of absence is countable, with the plural being leaves of absence. This is confirmed by the following dictionary example, despite the entry marking the head noun leave as a mass noun.

leave noun2 (mass noun) 1 Time when one has permission to be absent from work or from duty in the armed forces. ‘Full-time officers of research may take leaves of absence according to the policies described below.’ - ODO

Suppose one goes on leave for medical reasons, and upon the period's expiry takes personal leave, they are on leave (non-count) for the whole duration. They aren't on (*) two leaves. Likewise, if another person takes some time off as well, we still say that the two people are on leave (still non-count). It's non-count because it refers to a state of their employment. There is no change to the state even if multiple episodes are ganged together.

Since on leave refers to state, it doesn't become plural even when talking about separate, non-consecutive episodes. One says that someone has been on leave twice, not that they have been on (*) two leaves.

However, a leave of absence is understood as a defined episode:

A leave of absence (LOA) is a period of time that one must be away from one's primary job, while maintaining the status of employee. This contrasts with normal periods away from the workplace, such as vacations, holidays, hiatuses, sabbaticals, and "working from home" programs, in that they are considered exceptional circumstances, rather than benefits. Generally such an arrangement has a predefined termination at a particular date or after a certain event has occurred. - wikipedia

Because these episodes can be counted, the term leave of absence is treated as countable.

(*) The asterisk is a convention that ELU uses to flag instances of non-grammatical usage.

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  • How could a mass-only noun have a plural form? Is this a legit, grammatically correct example, or is the dictionary just being prescriptive or outdated in assigning the "mass" quality to the noun leave? Commented Apr 15, 2017 at 11:59
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    @Vun-HughVaw When leave is used on its own, I think it's fair enough to consider it a mass noun. Here, however, it's part of a noun phrase. It's really the noun phrase that is countable.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Apr 15, 2017 at 12:10
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    @Vun-HughVaw My suspicion (and I don't have any substantiation for this - it's just my take on it) is that while "taking leave" is easily understood, "taking leave of absence" tends to get parsed as 'going away' from 'absence', which isn't what it means. Adding "a" before "leave" makes the parsing much more natural: "taking a leave of absence". Being able to have one of them, of course, opens the door to treating leave of absence as countable.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Apr 15, 2017 at 12:19
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    Google Books has over 1000 written instances of took leaves of absence, and obviously there would be vastly more if I hadn't included the specific word took. I don't understand why this question even needs to be asked, but the answer is straightforward. Commented Apr 15, 2017 at 12:50
  • Does mass noun always mean uncountable only? The classic mass noun is "water", but it can be plural in the right context. Commented Apr 15, 2017 at 13:55

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