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I found the sentence "She accepted the award with a becoming humility" as an example of the use of the word "becoming" in Merriam Webster Advanced Learner's English Dictionary. Is the use of the indefinite article in that sentence correct? I thought that humility can be used only as an uncountable noun.

marked as duplicate by Edwin Ashworth, Tonepoet, JJJ, Community Jun 27 at 13:46

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    But a becoming humility and an unbecoming humility are faux-countable :) . You can sort of have one of them, but having two or more of them sounds distinctly odd. Better yet, don't think of such terms as countable - think of them as figures of speech. – Lawrence Jun 26 at 15:35
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Though this may seem esoteric, often the use of a adjectival modifier can render an uncountable into a countable, and this is but one example; you can test this proposition by replacing the adjective "becoming" with synonyms, near synonyms or antonyms, and noting that the resulting sentences still work with the "a" in place.

"She accepted the award with a charming humility"

"She accepted the award with a strange humility"

"She accepted the award with an atypical humility"

"She accepted the award with a shocking arrogance"

"She accepted the award with an unbecoming hubris"

They all work just fine.

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    While 'padding' often does allow the use of the indefinite article ('He received a wonderful education' / 'She received the award with a humility it was wonderful to behold' / ... it is better to consider these still as non-count usages. Numerals etc cannot be substituted for 'a': thus 'I have an understanding of the principles involved' but not 'I have two/some understandings ...'. / / *They accepted the award with [five / various / a lot of] shocking arrogances'. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 26 at 16:18
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Yes, uncountable nouns may be preceded by an adjective plus the article a/an in certain circumstances:

"These circumstances are when you are qualifying or limiting the noun’s meaning in some way." MacMillan Dictionary

becoming qualifies the humility.

  • Truth lies behind this brouhaha.
  • A greater truth lies behind all this brouhaha.
  • Honesty can cure many ills.
  • An unusual honesty characterized their relationship.

indefinite article with uncountable nouns

  • The MacMillan article is good up to the point where it classes 'coffees' say as a plural use of a non-count noun. In 'Arabica and Robusta are two coffees, and the two most frequently encountered', the usage is by (CGEL) definition count; the process of countification has occurred. Contrast 'Coffee is my favourite drink' / 'An unusual honesty characterized their relationship', where numerals cannot be inserted. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 26 at 16:28
  • I don't know any varieties of tea. I'd hoped the example was easy enough for most people to relate to. // As I said, CGEL. You can look up 'countification' here on ELU. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 26 at 16:41
  • In their example 'Customers can choose from dozens of different teas.' and I'll add 'There are three teas that I can really recommend', 'tea' has undergone countification in this usage. It is a count usage, by definition, as it accepts a numeral. / Use a grammar for grammar issues. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 27 at 18:41
  • "As for uncountable nouns that are used in the plural: we use the plural when we are talking about different types of a substance that is normally uncountable: Customers can choose from dozens of different teas.' Here, it is ridiculous to class 'tea' as 'an uncountable noun (whether or not 'we use [it in] the plural'. Usages, not nouns, are count or non-count. Customers can choose from dozens of different teas.' shows a count usage of 'tea', not 'an uncountable noun used in the plural'. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 27 at 19:33
  • You are completely wrong about the blog post. People can read it for themselves. I am not going to argue about your misreadings of the Macmillan blog post with such comments as: coffees is the plural of a non-count noun. That is not at all what they meant. – Lambie Jun 27 at 22:39
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Yes, it is correct. See the explanation of Cambridge dictionary A | meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary:

used before some uncountable nouns when you want to limit their meaning in some way, such as when describing them more completely or referring to one example of them:

I only have a limited knowledge of Spanish.

He has a great love of music.

There was a fierceness in her voice.

  • Hello again, SP. I like the third example (no padding!) ... but I'm trying to work out what effect the 'a' has. Certainly, it makes what is to my ear a rather unnatural-sounding sentence perfectly acceptable. I think the article is a sort of 'crystalliser', making the abstract noun sound less ... well, abstract. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 26 at 16:49
  • maybe "a" here means "a sort of" – momsta Jun 26 at 20:18
  • @momsta Not impossible, but I don't think so. I'm hearing an intense statement hear: if anything, I'd say there's an intensifier effect. Strange, because with 'There was a kindness in her voice', I'm hearing a softening effect. In any case, omitting the article with each of these two examples seems to my ear to lead to a less natural-sounding sentence. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 27 at 19:38

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