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I have a question that has been puzzling me for a while now. I tried really hard to find an answer but never found the one, which would be satisfying enough. I am talking about using definite and indefinite articles with uncountable nouns and also in of-phrases. I would be very grateful if anyone could explain it to me.

These two examples I found on the internet they refer to the usage of articles with uncountable nouns:

  • The position requires a knowledge of German.
  • The knowledge of computer software is very useful nowadays.

I am not sure why the first sentence uses the indefinite article while the second one the definite one.

When it comes to of-phrases (I apologize for calling them this way, I don't know the proper name for this type of constructions).

For example:

A chapter of a book. / The chapter of a book.

I found an article, which says that if the noun is followed by a prepositional phrase (of/in/to…), it is made definite and takes the definite article. Does it mean that the first noun always require the definite article even if it is the first mention of a noun? The chapter of a book. The name of a movie. etc.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Nov 12, 2021 at 14:14

3 Answers 3

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I can understand your confusion regarding the use of English articles, especially when people, in general, don't understand their usage.

In your first example, "The position requires a knowledge of German" is correct. However, "The knowledge of computer software is very useful nowadays" is questionable. It should read "A knowledge of computer software is very useful nowadays".

Both "knowledge of German" and "knowledge of computer software" are equally uncountable nouns phrases. They both should use the indefinite article "a(n)".

In your second example, "A chapter of a book" vs. "The chapter of a book", the noun phrases are without context. If I were speaking about a chapter of a book in general, I would use the former. However, had I been speaking (or writing) about a specific book and had I already spoken (or written) about a specific chapter in the book, then I would use the latter.

The following article about grammatical articles in English from Wikipedia provides more details about what I just summarized. I hope you find it helpful.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_articles

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  • thank you for taking the time to answer my question! Oct 22, 2021 at 12:56
  • You are welcome... 👍
    – Julio
    Dec 16, 2021 at 11:15
  • +1. Very good for a first answer, @Julio. Though I'm sad to say that there really is no single rule for articles. Articles are nuts and bolts in the grammar and mostly are used idiomatically, because they don't have any meaning. Some of their uses make some kind of sense -- though never the same for any use, -- but most of their uses are completely arbitrary and nobody knows why that's the way it it. But it is. Sorry about that. Apr 11 at 19:26
  • Both "knowledge of German" and "knowledge of computer software" are equally uncountable nouns phrases. They both should use the indefinite article "a(n)". <-- Are you suggesting that uncountable nouns can't be modified by definite articles? Apr 12 at 0:58
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I In the case of the first sentence, this is due to the mere usage that has been made of the noun "knowledge". It happens that for a given meaning this word belongs to two categories, that of the uncoutable nouns and that of the singular nouns (cannot be used in the plural).

(OALD) ​ [uncountable, singular] the information, understanding and skills that you gain through education or experience
♦ scientific/technical knowledge and skills
♦ intimate/first-hand/basic knowledge
♦ a thirst for knowledge
♦ It will be an opportunity to gain knowledge and experience.
♦ knowledge of something
♦ She has acquired a detailed knowledge of the subject.
♦ They enjoy sharing their knowledge of the business.
♦ He had no prior knowledge of the language before visiting the country.
♦ He has a wide knowledge of painting and music.

It follows that you cannot say "She has acquired several/many/… detailed knowledge of various subjects.", but in the singular there is no problem.

However, you have a choice, and you can suppress the article; you are then considering "knowledge" as uncountable.

  • The position requires a knowledge of German.
  • The position requires knowledge of German.

requires knowledge of, page of examples

II In the case of the second sentence, the problem has nothing to do with the countability of nouns; it is a matter of determination.

CoGEL § 5.58
In English, noncount abstract nouns usually have no article when used generically:
♦ My favourite subject is history/French/mathematics/music …
♦ Happiness is often the product of honesty and hard work.
♦ Theory must go hand in hand with practice.

Normally the zero article also occurs when the noncount abstract noun is premodified:
[…] when the same noun is postmodified, especially by an of-phrase, the definite article normally precedes it:
♦ She's studying *history of Europe.
♦ She's studying the history of Europe.

We thus find typical contrasts of the following kind:

human evolution - the evolution of man
medieval art - the art of the Middle Ages
Oriental philosophy - the philosophy of the Orient
18th century morality - the morality of the 18th century

III A chapter of a book. / The chapter of a book.

For the simple reason that there are usually several chapters in a book, if you can't be specific about any or if you don't want to be specific you use "a".

  • A chapter of the book I studied last was difficult.

You can be more specific, but as long as there are other chapters of the sort you describe you use "a".

  • I read an easy chapter and skip two. (There are probably other easy chapters.)

If you want to mention precisely a given chapter that is unique, then "the" is necessary.

  • I read the first chapter, but it'll be a long time before I get to the last one.

By itself, "The chapter of a book" is meaningless; there must be some postmodification that will say what is unique about it.

  • The chapter of the book that I have been talking about is the sixth.
  • The chapter of the book you need to know well is that on transformations.


Addition from 11/04/2022 concerning a comment by user Edwin Ashworth (Your first two sentences are unqualified ('These are the facts ...'). Is the OALD classification 'singular nouns' (1) accepted by CGEL, (2) accepted generally by grammarians (note that the term 'noncount'/'uncountable' etc is accepted by OALD, CGEL, and as far as I know most grammarians [for usages of nouns]) and (3) helpful when 'The position requires a knowledge of German' is idiomatic but 'The position requires one knowledge of German' isn't? I believe you're quoting two contradictory sources and claiming them both as fact.)

As an explicit categorization of nouns the OALD classification "singular noun" is found uniquely in the OALD. According to this dictionary, it is a classification meant to comprise all nouns that are not used in the plural (from the point of view of a certain definition of what is the concept "plural"), and thus it incompasses a rather large variety of nouns. In the words of the dictionary, many nouns like this can be used only in a limited number of ways, for example some singular nouns must be or are often used with a particular determiner in front of them or with a particular prepostion in front of them. It might be useful to remark—a remark of mine which I shall hazard—that those words are singular by virtue either of the fact that they denote a unique entity ("sun") or of the fact that it wouldn't come easily to someone's mind to use them in the plural ("knowledge"). A short list of these nouns follows; some of the particularities are given.

  • [compulsory "the"] the Sun, the matter (only in "what's the matter?"), the unthinkable, the impossible, the moment (exact point in time, "at the moment"), the gun (signal by firing pistol), the background [C, usually singular, U], the chair

  • [compulsory "the", proper nouns] the Arts and Crafts Movement, the Ivy League, the British Council,

  • [no article, proper noun] Britain,

  • [compulsory "a"] time ("a long time", "for a time", exceptions: "at one time", "in my time" )

  • trunk (main part of the human body) [usually singular]

  • [no article, "the"] sunrise, (usually singular), market (ex.: "their share of the market", "market values"),

  • [no article, "the", "a"]

  • knowledge (of/about sth) [U, sing.] (definition: the information, understanding and skills that you gain through education or experience)

  • ["a", "the"] A to Z, busman's holiday, wonderland [usually singular],

Because of the straightforwardness of its nature, it is clear that the category "singular" as used in the OALD is justified; however it fits into a scheme of classification based upon a given set of criteria that is different from that in the CoGEL; that does not mean that contradictions result but instead that different points of view form the basis of the choice of criteria; thus, whereas in the CoGEL uncount nouns are also considered singular nouns because of the simple fact that [the idea of plurality does not exist for that category / no plural form exist], in the OALD it is not so, and uncount nouns cannot be considered as singular because this concept is reckoned with as presupposing countability, the possible extent of a counting restricted to just 1 being no hindrance; in other words, on the whole, the singular classification is a refinement of the countable in which are set apart those nouns for which counting starts and stops at 1. Whereas according to CoGEL practices uncountable nouns (gold), abstract adjective heads (the impossible, the unreal) and most proper nouns (Henry) are SINGULAR INVARIABLE NOUNS, following the OALD, only the abstract adjective heads are SINGULAR (INVARIABLE) NOUNS. It could be said that if the notion of plurality in the grammar is morphological, in the dictionary it is more fundamental, and semantic.

This should answer the question about the acceptation, there is no common ground in virtue of which to accept or reject anything. Thus, I believed there is no ground for talking about contradiction. As to the second part of the question, there is not much I can say because my knowledge of the literature on the subject is rather scanty; I can say, however, that in all the explanations I have had an occasion to read I never found a discussion about the approach adopted in the OALD. The third part is more difficult to answer; it is helpful to the extent that the inquirer is aware that the singular noun is a very special sort of noun as far as its determination is concerned; this is a warning to the enquirer that, relatively to the possibilities of determination, idiomaticity plays a much greater part than in the case of regular countable nouns; otherwise, it is not helpful and merely helps to seize the nature of the word, which in itself is very important to who wants to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of nouns. I believe nevertheless that it has to be mentioned because it eliminates from the scope of all possible determination all plural determiners.

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  • thank you for taking the time to answer my question! Oct 22, 2021 at 12:56
  • Your first two sentences are unqualified ('These are the facts ...'). Is the OALD classification 'singular nouns' (1) accepted by CGEL, (2) accepted generally by grammarians (note that the term 'noncount'/'uncountable' etc is accepted by OALD, CGEL, and as far as I know most grammarians [for usages of nouns]) and (3) helpful when 'The position requires a knowledge of German' is idiomatic but 'The position requires one knowledge of German' isn't? I believe you're quoting two contradictory sources and claiming them both as fact. Apr 11 at 18:21
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    @EdwinAshworth I could perhaps summarize my answer to your question, but I'd rather make sure I get through to you as soon as possible; so, sinse it's rather long I'll make an addition to the body of my answer to the OP.
    – LPH
    Apr 12 at 0:37
  • Thanks for the refinements. It's very messy when different classification systems are used without prior stipulative definition of terms. And they often conflict. I've come to see 'count usage / noncount usage' as fundamental, a clear-cut dichotomy. Though with idioms such as 'break camp', 'weigh anchor', I see the string as unitary, an idiom best not analysed to death (ie beyond 'verbo-nominal'). The use of the indefinite article with non-count noun-usages ('He still took [a] pride in his appearance') does not swap them to count usages. Apr 12 at 14:18
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Countability is an attribute of nouns. Many nouns can be countable or uncountable. Whether the noun is countable or uncountable depends on its function in the sentence, its meaning, and the context.

There are very few purely uncountable nouns and probably no purely countable nouns. Determiners, quantifiers and nouns

An uncountable noun describes the concept of all nouns that share an essential, defining attribute: There is only one concept and therefore the uncountable noun cannot be plural.

Thus “knowledge” is the homogenous, non-finite concept of all [human] awareness. “Advice” is the non-finite and homogenous group of all words that contain advice.

To go further, you should understand the meaning of “a/an”. When used to modify a countable noun, “a/an [noun]” means “a [random] example of [a noun]” -> a cat = “a [random] example of [a cat]”

When used to modify an uncountable noun, “a/an [noun]” means “a [random] example of [noun]” -> a knowledge = “a [random] example of [knowledge]”

As far as "the" knowledge is concerned, "the" is anaphoric, i.e. it refers to something that has been mentioned before or that the speaker and listener are already aware of. (See Anaphoric, Cataphoric and Exophoric Referencing.)

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    This is incorrect: uncountable nouns can certainly be plural. Mostly these are those pluralia tantum such as Those cattle are lowing. Those oats need sowing. Those odds are growing. Those alms are slowing. Those feces are flowing. Those genitals are showing. Those pajamas need throwing. Those clothes need sewing. However, in the case of cattle, it is countable, because you can say Those three cattle are lowing. You can’t do that with those others, which all would require some sort of partitive construction.
    – tchrist
    Mar 11 at 20:03
  • ... As usual, I see a need to point out the analysis of noun usages as (A) count/noncount (a linguistics term) (*3 clothes) //// (B) singular or plural in form (boy / ox / furniture / team / -) vs boys / oxen /almost always - / teams / odds ...) (may have little to do with usage) //// (C) taking a singular or plural verb form (the boy is / the oxen are / the team is or are ...) //// (D) for completeness, whether referents are countable (a mathematical / philosophical concept (boys: 7; furniture: 3 tables & 4 chairs ... ). Mar 12 at 16:31
  • @tchrist It's worthwhile distinguishing between collective nouns and uncountable nouns: "There are much cattle" is wrong. "There is many pollution" is wrong.
    – Greybeard
    Mar 12 at 19:31
  • @EdwinAshworth So do you use much or do you use many with plural nouns such as feces, alms, genitals, clothes etc? If everything is either fish or fowl but never both nor neither, it necessarily follows that you “must” be able to always use exactly one of much or many but not the other with every one of those nouns, right? Something seems to have gone awry with the classification system here. I wonder what it is.
    – tchrist
    Mar 12 at 22:28
  • I'd usually use neither, but opt for a pseudopartitive (2 cwt of ordure; a pile of clothes, a generous giving of alms, an imaginitive display of genitals ...). Mar 13 at 16:23

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