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I heard this sentence in the TV show Severance: “What is a desperate humanity to do?” Isn’t “humanity” an uncountable noun? Why is “a” in front of it? Thank you.

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5 Answers 5

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In his Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Randolph Quirk says:

Some noncount nouns accept the indefinite article when they are modified .
eg:

They are doing a brisk business. (NOT *a business)

In some cases no modification seems to be required. In the following example, however, modification is in fact implied:

She has had an education. ['a good education']

The same author argues that

The conditions under which a/an occurs in such cases are unclear, but appear to include the following:

  • (i) the noun refers to a quality or other abstraction which is attributed to a person;
  • (ii) the noun is premodified and/or postmodified; and, generally speaking, the greater the amount of modification, the greater the acceptability of a/an. (see ch 5.9, p. 252 and ch. 5.59, p. 287)
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    "What's an X to do?" is something of a fixed phrase, likely contributing to this sentence's acceptability.
    – alphabet
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 20:12
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Several dictionaries do not recognize that "humanity" can be countable, but apparently that does not corresponds to usage (page of results for following ngram).

enter image description here

Cambridge, Collins OALD, Longman

This is also true to a certain extent, for instance, of a common word such as "paint" (OALD); yet you can say "some paints are more lasting than others". The fact that an indefinite article is used results from a general process called conversion, the particular sort involved here being "change of secondary word class for nouns" (A comprehensive grammar of the English language, Quirk et al., I 53). This is a process that is not fully productive [and not easily acknowledged]. It is recorded in dictionaries for certain nouns that are so often used this way, so that their conversion has been "completed", so to speak"; for others it is not convincing enough. There are three sorts of secondary word conversion for nouns.

CoGEL
[i] A unit of < noun > a beer, a coffee, a cheese, … (examples given shown as [U,C] in dictionaries)

[ii] A kind of < noun > bread — (not in Cambridge, OALD, Longman)

[iii] An instance of < noun > difficulty, frailty (examples given shown as [U,C] in dictionaries)

This is what happens to the word "humanity", which when used with "a" in this case means "a sort of humanity" (conversion of type 2). The reason for not finding a definition in dictionaries could be that saying "a sort of humanity" in the way of a definition would be saying something too general and having a meaning that is too vague; the meaning in the text is not vague because it is made precise by the context, this latter providing the clues that allow to determine what is that portion of humanity at a given place and time and what is its plight (or success, or something else). However it is not so easy to recognize that, and this usage is anyway literary in my opinion.

In the context of the dialogue in Severance it means something like Humanity such as found at a particular point of its evolution [that the context explains] (paraphrase of above definition) and that was also desperate"; humanity is not generally reckoned with as being desperate in all the periods of its known existence.


Complement aiming at clarifying comments made by user Mari Lou A and adding a precision highlighted by that user

First of all, it should be well understood that this conversion is a conversion from noun to noun, not a de-adjectival conversion to nouns ("final race, the final"); so as "desperate" is not a noun but only an adjective, the remark about this word is not relevant. It is however a good remark to say that you can't say "two desperate humanities". Secondly, the conversion being examined concerns that of uncount nouns, but I suppose rather that the countable nouns "kind" and "instance" where used in your comment to show the full range of possibilities that presents a truly countable noun.

The process of conversion is not a fully productive one; for certain nouns, in particular because of the nature of these nouns, it does not even occur at all. For instance you'll find that nouns such as

  • "leniency", "heredity", "censure", "impiety", "religiosity", "permanence", etc. (You might plot the ngrams "< N >,a/an < N >" and verify the nouns in the dictionaries that provide a label of countability.)

are fundamentally uncount nouns as recorded in dictionaries but that nevertheless they appear in text preceded by the indefinite article. This is true for a great number of uncount nouns. Even if "a/an < N >" is included in "< N >", in most cases if not nearly all, it can be seen that conversion results in a lot less occurrences.

You will also find that there are nouns such as "indefensibility" (basically noncount) for which connversion does not occur at all.

enter image description here

The explanation for this is to be sought in the nature of the word: "indefensibility" is of such a nature that we are not inclined to classify it into categories or singularize it into instances, except perhaps in a philosophical treatise. Conversion does occur for "defensibility" probably because in reference to this concept a particular scheme of defensibility raises much more interest. There are more common nouns with no conversion, as, for example "money".

enter image description here

An enormous majority of the cases concern premodification and a few are cases when money means "currency" (a money).

This is the first phenomenon, I believe, that accounts for calling the productiveness partial; the second is the generally incomplete process of conversion that a noun undergoes; whereas a countable noun and an uncountable one present the following possibilities.

det/number count noncount dual membership
zero furniture brick
the the book the furniture the brick
a a book a brick
some some furniture some brick
plural books bricks

A conversion does not show a perfect reversal; this is the reason why those nouns are not recognized in dictionaries as countable.

det/number noncount count by conversion
zero humanity
the _________ the humanity
a a humanity
some _________
plural ________

Here are cases of the use of "the".

(ref. 1875) Ah , Sappho , you are a close little reader of the humanity you are afraid of.

(ref. 2008) Be an excellent observer of the humanity you are a part of.

(ref. 1902) You are a formal pedantic, heartless, professional sociologist, with no more real knowledge of the humanity you are writing about, than a mummy, but I'll forgive all that, for what you have just said.

Notice that the usual form "some N" (some bread, some furniture, etc.) does not exist for "humanity": in "some humanity" "humanity" means "quality of being kind to people", and the true partitive construction is "some of humanity"; nor does that of using "the"; so nouns that are called uncountable in the dictionaries do not necessarily have themselves all the characteristics of uncountable nouns.

Let's now take up the second one of your questions.

This first example shows the notion very well (Fabric of Humanity).

Naskar the person died long ago, now what lives in front of you, and indeed within you, is Naskar the idea—the idea of one humanity—the idea of a harmonious humanity—a humanity that places the benfit of the neighbor above the benfit of the self—a humanity that places the significance of shared joy above the joy of the individual—a humanity that lives not in a chaotic planet, but in a truly intertwined conscientious society.

It is clear that what is presented is an idealized picture of humanity, a picture that we do not know as that of humanity such as we experienced it to the present day: it has its own characteristics which are not those of real humanity. It is therefore a fictitious humanity, a sort that could take the place of humanity as we experience it. There is no doubt that the idea of kind or sort is central in this text. However, we must concede that it is a fictitious sort and perhaps that beyond the sphere of fiction another reality could have to be contended with.

Concerning the ngram

common

ex. 1

In the case of "common humanity" the meaning is "the state of being a person rather than a god or an animal or a machine"; I believe that "common" means "well known, accepted by all". (Mad Or Bad?)

The psychopath shares with us a common humanity ; he remains a person.

The behaviour that results from being sick in the mind is part of the humanity of someone; as well, that which results along the lines of accepted norms is part of someone's humanity; the common humanity shared by the psychopath is that of a normal person; but the humanity of the normal person cannot include all the patterns of behaviour of the psychopath; in that respect it is a different sort of humanity.

ex. 2

( Hearing Before the Committee on Immigration and )

It is only through treaty or through residence here, that such rights accrue. But we should not, however, be forgetful of the obligations of a common humanity." Having the words of the President in mind, let us ask the question. "Are we not 'forgetful of the obligations of a common humanity' in depriving those citizens of our country whose wives are of a race ineligible to citizenship of the confort and society of their wives—in forgetting the family tie and decreeing by law the wives of such citizens shall be debarred from […]

new — I assume that in this next example "humanity" means "people in general" ( Search for a New Humanity: A Dialogue Between Josef Derbolav, The dialogue concludes with a reflection on the future for the human race, looking to an inner revolution - a radical alteration in our way of thinking - which will conquer the daunting problems currently facing the planet and its people.)

In conclusion, I should like to pose this question: In the light of the jeopardy in which our future stands, is there any point in discussing the chances for a new humanity? The kind of humanity that is meant here is not to be found in horizons of a […]

The idea of sort is explicited in the text itself.

little This result does not apply: "little" is part of the quantifier "a little" (some)

suffering

This adjective implies something new, at least in certain cases (in particular in religious contexts): it is not possible to conclude that a kind is implied; the whole of humanity is understood by this phrase. The use of "a" is not usual, perhaps to be assimilated to the usage of "a" in "She plays the oboe with (a) charming sensibility."; in the words of CoGEL, "the conditions under which "a/an" occur in such cases are unclear".

Wholeness in Hope Care: On Nurturing the Beauty of the Human ...) The suffering on the cross becomes a source of hope for a suffering humanity only when it is seen in the light of Jesus' resurrection.

Therefore, this usage which seems to defy explanation is also found, but I think it might be found much less often than the usage explained through conversion.

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    This answer doesn't convince me. The words instance and kind are nouns and are both countable; I can talk about "different kinds of bread " and "three instances of despair/joy" I cannot say "two desperates nor "two desperate humanities” It seems unlikely that the expression is talking about "a sort of humanity" (ii) but rather it refers to all humans. Can you please explain what you meant by sort? Personally, I think that speakers use the term humanity as a synonym for world (C) and people (C) i.e. a desperate people/world which follows the conventions of grammar.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 9:41
  • But when we speak of humanity meaning caring, sharing, and being compassionate, then adding the "a" before an adjective sounds idiomatic, e.g "a common humanity". See results of the ngram
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 9:50
  • @Mari-LouA I found that your interpretation is correct, but not that it should be the only one. You'll find in my post what details I could still add.
    – LPH
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 18:58
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Most English abstract nouns like humanity can have an a + adjective or just a appended to them. Abstract nouns are uncountable, yes.

"A humanity of the kind he displays is unusual".
"Only an unreasonable curiosity would make that claim".

examples of abstract nouns

Love, curiosity, grief, chaos, and friendship

From that same site, here are two examples of abstract nouns used by famous people:

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” - Martin Luther King, Jr. “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice.” - Nelson Mandela

You can see that when talking about notion of the noun, no determiner is used.

However, a determiner, an a can be used and is perfectly acceptable.

For example:

"A humanity of the kind he displays is unusual".
"Only an unreasonable definition of humanity would contain that claim".

So, as regards the question about this: “What is a desperate humanity to do?”

It is perfectly in keeping with characterizing humanity. And its meaning is not exactly the same as:

What is desperate humanity to do?

That would be interpreted as humanity overall being desperate.

Here is a definition of this usage:

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.

Cambridge Dictionary

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“What is a desperate humanity to do?”

(Absent context or clarification, I am going to assume that the meaning of "humanity" is "humankind" and the words are interchangeable.)

We should consider what "a/an" means. "A noun" means one example of that noun, taken at random, from that class of noun.

Thus "Here is a cat" = Here is one example of a cat that was taken, at random, from the class of animal known as "cat".

For convenience, we can reduce that to "a/an noun" ~ one example of the noun.

Next:

Humanity is weakly uncountable. It accepts the indefinite article when modified by an adjective, a relative, or adjectival phrase.

Compare another weakly uncountable noun:

This is coffee - This is a good coffee - This is a coffee that is good - This is a coffee for the connoisseur.

(Strongly uncountable nouns, e.g. guidance, weather do not do this:

That is good guidance. We are having bad weather.

*That is a good guidance. *We are having a bad weather.")

With weakly uncountable nouns, the adjective/relative/adjunct has a partitive effect. The adjectival separates the class of the uncountable noun (humanity) into examples of subcategories of the uncountable noun (humanity).

This happens as

“What is a desperate humanity to do?” = “What is an example of desperate humanity to do?” = “What is an example of humanity that is desperate to do?” = “What is an example of humanity in desperation to do?”

Does that make "humanity" countable? "No".

Humanity needs to progress *Two humanities need to progress *Many humanities need to progress

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The original sentence is "What is a girl to do?" It's a common phrase in English. Sometimes we just use common grammar forms like this and replace the noun, in this case "What is a ______ to do?", and just sub "girl" for "desperate humanity".

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