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I always thought the expression was "make landfall", not "make a landfall".

Dorian made landfall in Cape Hatteras.

??Dorian made a landfall in Cape Hatteras.

That said, this Ngram seems to suggest that the latter was more popular than the former until around 1970.

Is this some kind of misinterpretation of the Ngram or is there any historical and/or linguistic explanation for this?

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    All forms have become significantly more common over the past few decades. I suspect the majority of the earlier instances refer to a ship making a landfall, whereas most of the later ones are about hurricanes making landfall (now we have the satellite technology to actually track them). The decline of the earlier version (with the article) started during WW2. Changes in idiomatic preference often happen when soldiers from different linguistic communities interact in wartime. – FumbleFingers Sep 7 at 12:05
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    We're much more likely to discard articles in phrases that we use a lot. So seasoned camping backpackers usually make camp each evening, but someone who's never done it before might be more likely to say he'll make a camp for his first night in the great outdoors. And a long-serving shop assistant would probably say he's minding shop while the boss is away, whereas someone working his first day there might be more likely to say he's minding the shop. And everyone talks about hurricanes making landfall today, because they feature in national news so much now. – FumbleFingers Sep 7 at 12:18
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landfall

an uncountable noun

Cambridge

Indefinite Articles with Uncountable Nouns Grammarly

Uncountable nouns are nouns that are either difficult or impossible to count. Uncountable nouns include intangible things (e.g., information, air), liquids (e.g., milk, wine), and things that are too large or numerous to count (e.g., equipment, sand, wood). Because these things can’t be counted, you should never use a or an with them—remember, the indefinite article is only for singular nouns. Uncountable nouns can be modified by words like some, however.

This is the case for landfall. Over time English has abandoned written articles a, an and the. Many 'rules' for their usage abound. Their use or lack of use is not a 'fatal' grammatical error. The written over time mirrors the spoken.

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I would think either was usable but perhaps saying 'make a landfall' implies one of several landfalls? ie 'he made a landfall in X and later in the day he made another landfall in Y'. I feel the form without the 'a' sounds more natural to me.

  • I agree with this answer. What's more, it's borne out by the Google Ngram, especially pre-1970 results. It appears what's happened is this nautical jargon slowly crept its way into the mainstream as laypeople heard it or read it and then used it. Since the noncount noun usage is somewhat more glaring, laypeople may mistake it strictly a nouncount noun and so fail to use it as a count noun in instances it should be, specifically when its to convey that it's part of a series of such events, like with a ship on a long journey performing the action repeatedly. – Benjamin Harman Sep 7 at 14:19
  • We may, for example, say that Columbus made landfall in the Americas on October 12, 1492 to convey the historical moment that cannot be repeated of his stepping ashore in what would become knows as the Americas. But on that journey, that was just one landfall, so if I'm referring to that series, I would say that he made, say, six landfalls, a landfall on October 12, 1492, a landfall on October 18, 1492, and so forth. This usage, though, while being common with sailors, isn't so common with laypeople who started adopting the term as a result of authors like Melville and Defoe using it. – Benjamin Harman Sep 7 at 14:30
  • To be clear, "landfall" has always been BOTH a nouncount noun and a count noun. It's not that it was used to a count noun and then later became a noncount noun. Its use as a noncount noun just became more prevalent as more laypeople started to use it and think it was strictly a noncount noun. Today, if you're talking to an admiral in the US Navy, he's not going to blink at you saying "a landfall," but John Q. Public might. – Benjamin Harman Sep 7 at 14:37

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