I do exercises on articles and came across two expressions that are correct according to keys:

  • She has really good taste in books
  • He has a great sense of humor

Both "taste" and "sense" are nouns. Could you please explain why don't we put an article before "taste" and put it before "sense"?

  • 1
    Note that 'She has a really good taste in books' is arguably as acceptable as the anarthrous version. Other troubling usages are 'She has / They have fine eyesight' but 'She has / They have a real feel for the oil business'. Often, where there isn't clear count usage, these expressions are idioms and have become set one way or the other (though, as seen, both may be idiomatic). – Edwin Ashworth Feb 3 '18 at 23:54
  • I've occasionally tried to explain the use of articles in English (usually for people whose native languages don't have articles), but I gave up when confronted with "a cold", "the flu", and (without any article) "pneumonia". – Andreas Blass Feb 4 '18 at 3:07

One might say that it's because both taste and sense come in both countable and mass noun versions, and each version means something different. Whether an article is used helps determine which version is intended. Here is the entry for taste; the situation is similar with sense:

taste noun 1 The sensation of flavour perceived in the mouth and throat on contact with a substance. 3 (mass noun) The ability to discern what is of good quality or of a high aesthetic standard. - ODO

However, the natural follow-up question is why the mass noun version (of taste, say) is a mass noun. Here, I can only offer conjecture since 'why' questions about language depend largely on initial choices, which I don't have ready access to, and/or historical usage, which requires more etymological research than I am prepared to put in at this time. Or one could simply say that it's idiomatic and leave it at that.

Please note that the following is conjecture and rationalisation (not a definitive reason for the presence or absence of articles), using the taste example.

She has really good taste in books

This uses the null article (the most definite form, as distinct from the zero article, which is the most indefinite form; test by checking whether the sense is closer to 'the' or 'a', respectively). The term good taste is treated as an absolute, not one of many (a good taste) and more specific than simply referring to the only one (the good taste).

Although taste in the quality sense (definition 3 above) is subjective, those who make pronouncements on it invariably treat it as absolute - so someone could be said to have good taste or appalling taste with no thought that one's good taste could be different from another's. The most fitting article to use here would therefore be the null article.

Using the flavour sense of taste (definition 1 above, no pun intended) would change the meaning completely. Someone having a good taste refers to them savouring the flavour. So if "she has a really good taste in books", the natural meaning would skew to saying that books record her savouring something.

The humour example follows a similar rationalisation. If you take out the article, the natural reading skews to saying that he has detected strong evidence of humour, analogous to "he has firm sight of land". In this case, though, the "a sense of humour" phrasing is so idiomatic that it overpowers the detect evidence reading.

  • Good explanation. But you don't think of any of this when using or not using an article when you speak, do you? I mean, shouldn't there be a way more simpler way of figuring all this out? – JK2 Feb 4 '18 at 15:37
  • @JK2 That's where familiarity with the language comes in, I suppose :) . The 'simpler way' is to fall back on what's idiomatic - if you've heard it a gazillion times in a particular context with an article and none without, I imagine you'd tend to default to using the article when constructing the phrase in the same context. – Lawrence Feb 4 '18 at 15:41
  • Let's say, as a native speaker, you've heard of both of the OP's examples or similar variants thereof, gazillion times. So you're familiar with them. But, being a native speaker, you're not really analyzing any of the stuff as you did in your answer. Then, how do you know for sure that the familiar versions are the only grammatical versions? That is, how do you know for sure that adding "a" in the first example and omitting "a" in the second are not allowed? – JK2 Feb 4 '18 at 15:58
  • @JK2 That’s what I tried to express in the second part of my answer. There are usually guiding principles or at least systematic conventions at play. Verbalising it takes more effort than just using it. For example, why does an expert carpenter grip his hammer at a specific distance? He might say it’s because it feels right. We can look into the physics of it, emerge with a treatise on moments of inertia, then consciously apply the principles to our own holding of hammers. When we get proficient at it, it will just ‘feel right’ to us as well, but we’d have some idea of why, if asked. – Lawrence Feb 5 '18 at 3:05
  • ... My conjecture is as close to ‘for sure’ as I can express at the moment, though I’ll admit that it’s possible some simpler explanation might gel better with the intuitive ‘just knowing’. Does this address your comment? I know it’s not as full an answer as you’d like. – Lawrence Feb 5 '18 at 3:08

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