My father was not a tall man but he was able to command a room. He had a presence about him, the solemnity of an oracle. His hands were thick and leathery—the hands of a man who’d been hard at work all his life—and they grasped the Bible firmly.

I searched with an answer that a/an X about is a fixed phrase, but I still don't understand as presence is unccountable, why a/an is used here?

  • 1
    Presense is countable. As indeed the article indicates. That's what its whole job is. The article is what makes it countable in the first place.
    – RegDwigнt
    Mar 26 '19 at 12:09
  • no, check this in dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/presence, it is uncountable. --- C2 [ U ] approving a quality that makes people notice or admire you, even when you are not speaking:
    – wtdark
    Mar 26 '19 at 12:59
  • 1
    The example you quote actually reads "He stood there in the corner of the room, a dark, brooding (= worrying) presence." Thus, despite the annotation reading U = uncountable, the quoted example shows the opposite! Other examples in that entry show various uses of presence as countable or uncountable.
    – TrevorD
    Mar 26 '19 at 14:11
  • 1
    Yes, a/an can sometimes be used with an uncountable noun, as your example shows. Uncountable nouns referring to personal qualities are quite often like this - he had an efficiency about him that was much appreciated by the management ? they had efficiencies about them that were much appreciated..., she had a sexiness about her that would have sold records even if she hadn't had the voice of the century ? they had sexinesses about them that...
    – user339660
    Mar 26 '19 at 14:28
  • 1
    NB you would say he had a lot of presence / a great deal of presence, not he had lots of presences. It's hard to articulate why these cases are different but I think it's to with the qualities concerned being being abstract and unquantifiable. We may partake of these qualities but can never own them, if that isn't too mystical. Talent is another example - she had a talent for painting vs ? they both had talents for painting - we would say they both had a talent for painting cf he had a height of 6'6, she had a height of 5'10; they had heights of 6'6 and 5'10 respectively.
    – user339660
    Mar 26 '19 at 14:44

You have had solid answers to your question. Let me take a slightly different tack.

First, the word presence here has a special sense,

Also ‘a’ is also being used in a special way. It is not like ‘a pear’ or ‘a sports car’. it is in a deeper way ‘indefinite’. It has the sense of ‘some undefined’ or ‘some unstated’... Ancient Greek and Latin had words that did this job. In Greek the word was ‘τις’ (tis). In Latin it was ‘quidam’. Both were enclytic (followed the noun they qualified.).

Praesentia quaedam or παρουσία / επιφάνεια τις

School kids of my generation were taught to translate these as ‘a certain, conveying something undefined or (literally)* indefinite*.

So because the presence is undefined, it cannot be counted. Perhaps the presence of one or of several *whatever-it-ises *. All the character is aware of is a presence.


This noun like many others can be both countable and uncountable.

In your case it is countable.

According to Oxford English Dictionary (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/presence):


1.1count noun 

A person or thing that exists or is present in a place but is not seen.

‘the monks became aware of a strange presence’

As about collocation with 'about', look at the example from Reverso.context.net:

"If by that you mean Mr Cochrane is manly, yes, he has a certain presence about him."

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