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I'm sure this might have been asked, but couldn't find it, so forgive me if it is a duplicate.

Is saying "I had a fever" correct ?

I've also heard people saying "I had fever",

but don't have any proof of either being correct.

My guess is, they're both right.

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    From Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb When I was a child I had a fever. You can drop the article, but it's normally present. Commented Sep 30, 2011 at 14:10
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    Cool. Thanks. I can't believe my English teacher tried to mock me for saying that.
    – Some Guy
    Commented Sep 30, 2011 at 14:11
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    And yet you would normally say "I had the flu" and "I had toncillitis".
    – Urbycoz
    Commented Sep 30, 2011 at 14:36
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    @Urbycoz: Doubtless tonsilitis (the kissing disease) does have a bit of a peak in September/October when vast numbers of young people start living away from home as they enter tertiary education. But 'flu has more of a reputation for coming in "waves". So you say you had the 'flu because there's often a sense of the particular strain of 'flu doing rounds at the time. Commented Sep 30, 2011 at 16:24
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    @FumbleFingers - What? Can't hear you over this steam-shovel...
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 3, 2011 at 13:28

4 Answers 4

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Working on the principle that "correct language" is defined as the common usage among native speakers of the language: "I had a fever" is correct. I don't think I've ever seen "I had fever" in print and very rarely spoken.

In general, I think the rule is that when you are referring to something that is countable, you use an article. When you are referring to something that is not countable, you do not. Thus you would say, "I had a dog" or "I had the chair", because we can count dogs and chairs, i.e. there might be one dog, two dogs, etc. But you say, "I had food" or "I had happiness" because you cannot count "food" or "happiness", i.e. you would not normally say "two foods" or "two happinesses". Think of "a" and "the" as taking the place of the number "one".

Fever is countable. You could say "I had two fevers this year: one in January and another in March."

Which brings to my mind an interesting point: Some diseases are not considered countable. You wouldn't say, "I had two leprosies" or "I had two diabeteses". So we don't use "a" with those. I'm not quite sure what the rule is. Maybe: Long term chronic diseases are not countable, but short term diseases are? Like, "I had a fever", "I had a headache", "I had a cold", but "I had leprosy", "I had cancer", "I had manic-depressive disorder". Hmm, this is starting to sound like, "I have hypochondria".

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    Here’s an example from a 1953 publication: ‘I had fever all night, but my sister said I was lying and no one ran after me, and she said ghosts were in peepul trees, not mango trees.’ Commented Sep 30, 2011 at 14:56
  • What was the publication. It sounds great!
    – Urbycoz
    Commented Sep 30, 2011 at 14:59
  • ‘Phoenix fled and other stories’ by Attia Hosain Commented Sep 30, 2011 at 15:56
  • I know how to use articles, I just never thought of using articles differently for chronic and acute diseases. You make a good point there. And, well, there was my English teacher telling me I was wrong that brought me here wanting to clear it up. Thanks.
    – Some Guy
    Commented Sep 30, 2011 at 15:57
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    This is related to the common use of 'a' or 'an' before uncountable nouns to indicate a type or instance of the uncountable noun. Like "a dense fog" or "a hush fell over the crowd". When you say "I had a fever" you mean a single episode or incidence of fever. Commented Oct 1, 2011 at 4:46
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Yes, "I had a fever" is correct, and "I had fever" is incorrect, at least in US English.

EDIT: I was unaware of the usage of the latter construction. I must now change my answer to "I've never heard it," and "It's much less common (at least during my lifetime it has ben)."

Google books "had fever" vs. "had a fever"

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  • The OP asks whether it is acceptible without "a" also.
    – Urbycoz
    Commented Sep 30, 2011 at 14:38
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    -1: I/he had fever might be a slightly declining usage, but I can't accept that it's "incorrect". Commented Sep 30, 2011 at 16:31
  • Well, if you accept my point then feel free to change incorrect to less common in you answer, and I'll reverse my downvote. Commented Sep 30, 2011 at 18:49
  • Is that sufficient? I was editing it at the same time as you were posting your follow, I think. Commented Sep 30, 2011 at 19:53
  • To me (British English) "I had fever" sounds like a line from a mid-19th century novel where "fever" is a vague word meaning an illness whose exact nature is not known or where it is a synonym of the ague or malaria or some such. I'm happy to accept that AE still uses it.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Jul 25, 2021 at 18:28
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"I had fever" is not good English in any dialect I have ever heard. There's probably one somewhere.

@FumbleFingers found a lot of examples he linked in the comments below, most of which appear to me to be from medical texts or quotes from medical professionals. So this may be a somewhat common phrasing in the medical community.

The only other time I can think of where I've heard the "a" left off the front is in the old Peggy Lee song "You Give Me Fever". Perhaps your teacher heard it (it's a pretty hot song) and thought that was normal.

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  • I gave an example above. Commented Sep 30, 2011 at 17:54
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    Here are a couple of thousand written instances of he has fever. I don't think it's particularly dialectal - just a less common form. Commented Sep 30, 2011 at 18:51
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    @FumbleFingers - I'm not sure I'd entirely agree with your assertion about those instance not being "dialectal". I thumbed through a couple of pages of the actual hits it produced, and nearly all of them seemed to have been uttered by actual medical professionals. Perhaps this is something more common in that arena? Perhaps the fact that they are using the word as an example of a symptom rather than a full-on explanation of person's problem is the difference? (Good find though)
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 30, 2011 at 20:48
  • Well, I just looked at results 91-100 so I'd be on different examples. One was clearly a clinician, one was part of a language teaching example, and the rest all looked perfectly ordinary usage to me. Bear in mind I'm not suggesting it's anywhere near as common as a fever - just that it's not particularly rare or restricted to a few dialectal contexts. Commented Sep 30, 2011 at 20:58
  • ...either way, its a strong enough find that I think this answer needed to be edited.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 30, 2011 at 21:01
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I too have heard 'a fever'. But I think the reason for its being considered a countable noun is not that I got one in January and the other one in June and so on. Much rather, there are different types of fever out of which I got one; hence, we consider fever a countable noun.

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