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I often notice that the presence of an adjective causes an article to appear where, in the absence of the adjective, there would not be an article. For example: here's a quote from William Dunham's Euler the Master of Us All:

Hiding their secrets with an embarrassing ease, the integers provide a worthy challenge for the greatest of mathematicians.

Is this correct, appropriate, and what's the general rule governing this?

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  • He writes beautiful poems. He writes beautiful stories too. Articles?
    – Ram Pillai
    Mar 16, 2020 at 15:37
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    Does this answer your question? A blinding light /blinding sunlight / a blinding sunlight. Though the 'padding' of adjectives is certainly one factor, the fundamental question here is the use of the indefinite articles with non-count nouns (as defined by say CGEL), in formal / literary style (hence adjectives are to be expected); eg The director spoke at the meeting today with an enormous enthusiasm. / A paralyzing horror overwhelmed him. / She smiled at us with an unusual friendliness. Mar 16, 2020 at 16:10
  • Note that 'We need someone with a knowledge of Chinese' is an idiomatic example of an unmodified non-count noun with indefinite article, but such are rare. Mar 16, 2020 at 17:55
  • "A/an noun" can be understood as "an example of {uncountable noun}" The solution was found with an example of embarrassing ease. This is true of countable and uncountable nouns.Edwin Ashworth took his examples from usefulenglish.ru/grammar/…, which is a useful site for speakers of languages that lack articles.
    – Greybeard
    Mar 16, 2020 at 18:34
  • It is certainly correct and appropriate. That doesn't mean that I can explain it...
    – TonyK
    Mar 16, 2020 at 22:49

1 Answer 1

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Many uncountables can be treated as countable when a specific example, or a specific kind, is meant.

That specificity can come from a relative clause:

the beauty that fades ...

or from a possessive phrase:

the beauty of a red rose ...

or from an adjective

a fleeting beauty ...

Having said that, the last (adjective) case is different from the others, because it is not specific (and so does not take the definite article 'the') but only partly specified (a fleeting beauty, rather than any other kind) so it takes 'a'. It is a bit literary.

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  • Of course, we could refer to more specific the fleeting beauty of a snowflake. Mar 16, 2020 at 16:06
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    According to CGEL, 'a fleeting beauty' displays a non-count usage, as '2 / 8 / several fleeting beauties' are unacceptable. The use of the indefinite article with non-count usages has been discussed on ELU before. Mar 16, 2020 at 16:08

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