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For the last two days I have been trying to understand the concept of using some or zero article with uncountable nouns. I have searched on internet, read the relevant sections of some books but generally the sources are focused more on "a/an vs. the" and countable nouns. I will try to summarise my question here.

The first explanation I see on the zero article is the generalisation.

Water is a very important substance for all living creatures

Furniture is a costly item when you are setting up a home

I can understand why there is no article in the above examples as they are speaking about water and furniture in general, not some specific water mass or some specific furniture.

However I see some examples which seems to talk about some limited amount of a substance but lacks any article or determiner.

There's blood on your shirt

I eat rice every day

Water has got into my camera and damaged it

We need to stop the machine I see oil in the tank

The first three is from the books English Grammar in Use and Advanced Grammar in Use and I made up the fourth one but I believe it is proper to use it like this. How can we omit a determiner here? They don't look like generalisations to me. They all talk about some limited amount.

I thought that maybe that's because what's important in this sentences is not the amount but the substance we are talking about. Then I think I should be able to use both of the sentences below

I am going to the kitchen to drink some water

I am going to the kitchen to drink water

Lastly the post I read in the following link confuses me.

http://advancegrammar.blogspot.com/2009/08/some-and-zero-article.html

It says:

We use “some” in affirmative sentences and questions with plural and uncountable nouns when we talk about limited, but indefinite, or unknown numbers or qualities of things.

Example:

  • Some furniture arrived for you this morning. (not Furniture arrived…)

  • Would you like to hear some good news? (not…to hear good news)

The examples with blood, rice, water and oil were talking about limited and indefinite amounts of things but it was safe to omit the articles or determiners. Even though to use 'Furniture arrived ...' or 'to hear good news' in their examples seems somewhat wrong to me I don't understand why I cannot use these forms while I was able to omit determiners in the previous examples.

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  • It should be "going to the kitchen in your examples.
    – Peter
    Jan 26 at 4:57
  • Thanks Peter, I am editing it.
    – Zalajbeg
    Jan 26 at 6:56

2 Answers 2

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You can think of articles, no article and "some" as providing different levels of information and specificity:

  • The chair was in the hall: We know which specific chair we are talking about
  • There was a chair in the hall: Unknown chair we encounter for the first time
  • There were some chairs in the hall: Unknown chairs but limited number of them
  • The hall was occupied by chairs: Unknown chairs and also an unknown number of them

Your examples for blood, rice, water and oil do not specify their amounts. There is an unknown amount and we are not talking about specific objects.

  • Water has got into my camera and damaged it: This sentence is about the substance that has damaged a camera, not the specific drop or spoonful which has got inside. It could have been raining or you could have been diving.

Your kitchen example also does not work because you either have a specific kitchen with an article (known or unknown) or you would use kitchens to specify the type of room with "some" or no article (not considering adjuncts like kitchen furniture).

The final two examples also work without "some" but the meaning would be more general:

  • Furniture always arrived on Thursdays
  • I would like them to publish good news instead of this gloomy business
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  • Thanks for your explanation, I have edited my question now it is like "the kitchen". What I was asking was about omitting 'some' before water in these examples. I believe it is about what I want to emphasise. Because in the examples about blood, rice, water and oil the amount have to be limited even though it is unknown. But the emphasised thing is what material/substance is there. Therefore I am going to drink some water emphasise drinking some amount of water while I am going to drink water emphasise what is going to be drunk - water, not juice, not beer. Is that correct?
    – Zalajbeg
    Jan 26 at 7:23
  • Yes, it's about where the focus is. Are you talking about an amount or a substance.
    – dubious
    Jan 26 at 9:49
  • 'The water has got into my camera and damaged it' is also quite possible when context (perhaps previous sentences, perhaps the spray coming into the boat you're in) makes the source of the water clear, so licensing/requiring the specificity of the definite article). /// 'To the library / pub / doctor's ... // kitchen / living room / bathroom ...' (the latter even when you have a choice of 3, the pub even when you have a choice of 30) are fixed expressions Jan 26 at 18:57
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You use the zero article to contrast the substance with another substance. Any amount is significant. You use “some”;because not all amounts of the substance are appropriate for concern.

If you say: “there is blood on your shirt.” You are saying any amount is of possible concern, compared with something like water, and are not referencing any particular portion. There could even be more blood you haven’t seen yet. If you say: “there is some blood on your shirt,” you are saying you see a specific amount that is definitely of concern by itself.

It is not certain, which statement refers to more blood. The former implies no upper or lower limit, so usually sounds more worrisome, but it could also refer to a single drop. It means, investigate the amount of blood to determine what to do, because any blood is concerning. The second implies the speaker has a tentative idea of what happened and how much blood there is. If the amount of blood was of immediate concern, you would have expected the person to say: “there is a lot of blood on your shirt.” The blood is limited in amount, but could be a lot or a little. The amount has some significance to the speaker that is unspoken.

“I eat rice every day” means rice as opposed to some other food. The amount is irrelevant. “I eat some rice every day” implies some unknown minimal amount sufficient for an unstated purpose. The amount is relevant.

“Oil in the tank” means any oil is potentially worrisome. “Some oil” means an amount that is definitely of concern.

In talking to a host or a waiter, asking for some tea is slightly more polite than asking just for tea, because it suggests only a limited amount would be sufficient for your purposes, but it is not necessarily rude to omit it, especially if tea were being contrasted with another type of drink.

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    It makes me think that I can extend the same to the plural nouns. I eat apples every day (not pears, not oranges). Also let's check these two: 1) I saw some fleas on the cat and we decided to wash it. (Here I am talking about the fleas I saw, some specific fleas. 2) There are fleas on the cat, we need to wash it. (Here I am concerned about what's on the cat, not the amount) Is my logic correct?
    – Zalajbeg
    Jan 26 at 7:51
  • Yes, that is correct. If you say, "I saw a flea on the cat," I could lazily reply, "it's nothing, just flick it off." If you say, "I saw fleas on the cat," I might lazily reply, "How many? Do you think there's really a flea problem? If you say, "I saw some fleas on the cat," I might unreasonably reply, "Were there really that many? Do we really have to wash it or apply anti-tick medicine?" Jan 26 at 18:04

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