1

I have tried to do a bit of research on the topic, but to no avail. Can uncountable nouns which are not determined by an adjective or a subordinate clause be used with the indefinite article for emphasis?

Which of the cases below are correct (probably both)?

  • What patience! What heat!
  • What a patience! What a heat!

Now, what I was able to find out. According to MacMillan,

The answer is that while uncountable nouns don’t have plurals (usually, although there are exceptions to that rule too) they can in certain circumstances be preceded by an indefinite article. These circumstances are when you are qualifying or limiting the noun’s meaning in some way.

In these cases provided by MacMillan, the uncountable noun's meaning is definitely limited by an adjective or a subordinate clause:

  • Theirs is a love that will be put to the test.
  • You’re going to spend your life chasing a happiness that always eludes you.
  • I want my daughter to develop a healthy respect for danger but not to live in fear.

Another example can be found here:

"Table M2.3: Using Indefinite Article" in LSEG4 says: "The indefinite article is used with uncountable nouns in order to suggest the idea of 'a kind of'." (For examples please consult LSEG4.)

and then:

  • Jane used to display an extravagant Italian elegance.
  • John had an incredible thirst for knowledge.

While it is clear with these cases of use, I wonder to which extent this might also be true speaking of uncountable nouns used without any determination by an adjective or a subordinate clause.

  • What patience! What heat!
  • What a patience! What a heat!

To me, both variants sound correct. The one with the indefinite article seems to be limiting the meaning of the noun. In other words, we have an omitted (presumed) attributive there: What a [fantastic] patience! What a [terrible] weather!, and that seems to be adding a kind of emotional emphasis. However, I'm not quite sure about that, and I fail to find any reliable sources. So, any hints would be really appreciated.

  • Good question. I can't see any grammatical reason to limit the acceptability of using the indefinite article to just certain noncount nouns, but idiomaticity kicks in. I think I've heard 'What a heat!' used, with 'intolerable / incredible / vast / ...' semi-recoverable. But 'What a weather!' I think I've only encountered in novels over 150 years old. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 21 '18 at 18:55
-1

Applying what your source says, using the indefinite article is only correct if you are limiting the noun's meaning.

"What a weather" is not limiting the meaning of "weather" in any way, and therefore it sounds weird to me.

However, if you add an adjective describing "weather", then it makes sense to use the indefinite article, because you are limiting the meaning of "weather".

If you check it on Google, the version with the article:

What a good weather.

gives 440 000 results, while

What good weather

gives 88 000 results.

Strictly speaking, I think only the version without the indefinite article is grammatically correct, but the version with the article is way more common, so I think it is at least colloquially acceptable.

Also, there are phrases where you always use the indefinite article before an uncountable noun, such as:

What a pity!

In some cases, making a noun countable changes its meaning.

What memory!

refers to someones ability to remember things, while

What a memory!

refers to a specific memory of an event.

Finally, if you wish to make uncountable nouns more specific (countable), I think there are other more elegant ways of doing it:

What kind of weather (...)

Such bad weather!

Such weather (...)

  • 1
    Yes but you're right and "What a good weather" is simply wrong. "A weather" is hardly more comparable to "a climate" than "a whether" is. However, please remember some say there are more people studying English in China than live in America and as big as it is, China is far from the only huge, non-native speaker or writer of Englihs whose output must skew Google any which way you like. Weather is necessarily a large-scale thing, almost guaranteed to be shared by thouands. that's true of memory as a general concept but your "a memory" is purely individual. – Robbie Goodwin Mar 6 '18 at 23:35

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.