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First, could you have a look at this quote?

The instructor who is uncomfortable with discipline will have little problem with the children in the early grades, since the children there are usually quite anxious to please the teacher.

Source: 1-2-3 Magic Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 By Thomas W. Phelan · 1995

Here we see the highlighted phrase "have little problem." The noun "problem" here seems to be used as an uncountable (or mass) noun, instead of as a countable noun (as in "a problem" and "several problems").

At first, I assumed that this usage was wrong, but having found more than several examples of this kind in published books available on Google.books, I'm beginning to suspect that this usage is generally accepted. Is this usage of the noun idiomatic? Thank you.

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3 Answers 3

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Uncountable problem is a ɴᴇɢᴀᴛɪᴠᴇ ᴘᴏʟᴀʀɪᴛʏ ɪᴛᴇᴍ. It only occurs in negative environments or questions. It is perfectly grammatical in the OP's example


The determinative little is a negative word meaning not much. It contrasts with a little, which is positive. We can show this using question tags. We usually use negative tags on positive sentences and always put positive tags on negative sentences:

  1. There was little left, was there?
  2. There was a little left, wasn't there?

As you can see below, uncountable problem only occurs in a negative or interrogative context:

  1. *I have problem with your doing that today. (ungrammatical)
  2. I have no problem with your doing that today.
  3. I have little problem with your doing that today
  4. Did they have any problem with your doing that today?
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  • Here's a question: why is "They didn't have problem with it" invalid? That's a negative context, so we should be able to use uncountable "problem" there without a determiner.
    – alphabet
    Aug 28, 2023 at 10:38
  • And why is "have some problem with" attested?
    – alphabet
    Aug 28, 2023 at 10:41
  • @alphabet Three issues: 1) just because something occurs predominantly in negative contexts doesn't mean it can occur in all negative contexts! (But see here for examples of don't have problem - not grammatical in my idiolect.) Note that seldom have problem and rarely have problem seem well-attested. 2) There are always puzzling exceptions to NPIs. 3) Some problem isn't one of those, I think. Consider "It is quite evident then that 4 out of 10 DWIs will have some problem with alcohol" <-- That use of some is just like (1/2) Aug 28, 2023 at 11:02
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    @TimR The second, though it might give us a clue as to how it came about. It occurs idiomatically with the negative determiner no, which can come before singular count and non-count nouns as well as plural nouns. No problem could perhaps originally have been used in the count sense to mean not one problem, or not a problem. But after becoming idiomatic in the phrase no problem, problem could have been reanalysed as a non-count noun within the phrase, thereby leading to the spread of non-count problem in other negative contexts. But that's just wild speculation on my part. Aug 28, 2023 at 17:02
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    @HippoSawrUs I prefer you. But traditional grammar presciptivists used to (some still do) stipulate that the subject of a 'gerund' must be genitive. So, it's there, really, to keep the pedants away from underneath my post ;-) Sep 23, 2023 at 16:07
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In American English we have little + non-count abstract-noun collocations, such as:

little chance, little hope, little difficulty, little patience, little recourse, little help, little faith

and little in these uses means "not much".

The word problem can also be used in that way, as a synonym for difficulty. So, to have "little problem" is to have "not much difficulty". And we can also say not much problem. I believe that is also a British English collocation.

The main uses with problem include little problem with something and little problem doing something.

Sound sleepers, they had little problem with me coming in after midnight.

Did you have much problem finding your way here? -- No, your directions were good. We had little problem finding our way here.

They had little problem breaching the company's data security.

They had not much problem breaching the company's data security.

But the other nouns take different prepositions. Little faith in something. Little hope of something. Little chance of something. Little patience with or for something.

=== Attestations (see the comments moved to Chat for the hyperlinks)

:1853. offers so much problem google.com/books/edition/…

:1894. Our response can be delayed ... without too much problem. google.com/books/edition/The_Michigan_Alumnus/…

:1980. Mr. Beard: You don't think you would have much problem? Marcus: No; not too much problem. google.com/books/edition/…

:1971. That does not give me too much problem. google.com/books/edition/…

:1974. We haven't had too much problem with counterfeiting. I guess we have had a few. [my emphasis] google.com/books/edition/…

:1993. And I really didn't have too much problem. google.com/books/edition/Boots_of_Leather_Slippers_of_Gold/…

:1998. If... tender plants are kept off the floor, there will not be too much problem. google.com/books/edition/Gardening_in_Your_Greenhouse/…

:1955. We know we can dispose of 1,800,000 acres without too much problem. google.com/books/edition/Hearings/…

:1967. I would not see too much problem with light aircraft VFR operation in the north - south pattern . google.com/books/edition/…

:2012. Loving you is too much trouble; Not loving you is too much problem. google.com/books/edition/The_Storm_Is_Over_Now/…

:2014. These people didn't seem to have too much problem with other learned activities. They could read, they could write, they could ride bicycles, drive cars, type on a computer keyboard and use a calculator. google.com/books/edition/Get_Everything_Done/…

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  • But problem and chance are totally unlike difficulty and patience. Consider: She had difficulty with the ignition and She had patience with the ignition are both fine whereas She had problem with the ignition and There was chance of it igniting are both ungrammatical. The uncountable noun problem is utterly different from the uncountable noun difficutly. Never the twain shall meet. Aug 28, 2023 at 9:59
  • This is not totally productive. 'We have a situation' / *'We have little situation'. Similarly, with 'issue' and 'poser'. So massification needs supporting evidence. Aug 28, 2023 at 10:01
  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on English Language & Usage Meta, or in English Language & Usage Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Laurel
    Aug 29, 2023 at 11:02
  • @TimR I don't think there's a convenient way to copy entire comments/chat messages, but you can copy most of it and then get the full URL by right clicking (or long tapping on the mobile transcript) if that part doesn't copy correctly. (In the future, you should probably put it all into your answer directly, even if it's a work in progress.)
    – Laurel
    Aug 29, 2023 at 11:20
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    (The first link in my first comment leads to the chat where they can be found.)
    – Laurel
    Aug 29, 2023 at 11:21
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The short answer to your question is that "have [or has] little problem with" is idiomatic in U.S. English. Here is the Ngram chart for "have little problem with" (blue line) versus "have few problems with" (red line) for the period 1900–2019:

As you can see, both of these expressions are largely creatures of the past 100 years. In fact, most of the earliest Google Books matches for both expressions are misdated—an instance of "have little problem with" that Google Books search results attribute to a U.S. National Labor Relations Board decision of 1936 is in fact from an NLRB decision published in 1995, and another that the search results attribute to American Scientist in 1942 is probably from the 1990s or later, as it refers to "a computer monitor" and "a laser printer."

The earliest claimed Google Books matches for "have few problems with" are likewise difficult to corroborate. The earliest one that seems quite plausible is this instance from Community Comments (circa 1944):

Young people want to be with others of their own age, they prefer soft drinks to stronger beverages, and they want their own type of entertainment—jitterbugging, for instance.

Communities throughout the nation have proven that when these simple wants are met, you have few problems with adolescents in taverns. Fail to meet these wants and young people will take the next best thing at hand, which may be the tavern dance floor."


Early published instances of 'has/have little problem with'

The earliest confirmed match for "have little problem with" that I could find appears in an unidentified article in Forum (September 1947) [combined snippets]:

Most unions have little problem with respect to the publication and distribution of their reports. Indeed, since 1943 the filing of such reports with a government agency—the Treasury Department—has been a requirement of the law. It can be safely predicted, however, that few employers anxious to evade and delay their collective bargaining obligations will fail to greet a union petition for election with, first, a charge that the union has engaged in "restraint" and "coercion" and, second, an assertion that somewhere, somehow, the union has slipped up in the full distribution of financial reports to all members throughout the country.

Also, from Charles Frake, "Social Organization and Shifting Cultivation Among the Sindangan Subanun" (PhD dissertation, Yale University, 1955) [combined snippets]:

Since the upper boundary of a Lipay swidden is usually an exposed ridge top, the whole cleared area often has only one forested boundary. This pattern simplifies the fight against animal pests, but apparently aids the floral enemy.The Hanunoo who do not follow this practice have little problem with Imperata.

And fromquestioning of Al J. Hayes by Senator Pat McNamara of Michigan (May 8, 1958), in Union Financial and Administrative Practices and Procedures: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Labor of the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare (May 1958):

Senator McNAMARA. On the other matter you indicate you have little problem with trusteeship and I think that is commendable, to be sure.


Early published instances of 'has/have little problem [+ some other preposition]'

Google Books searches turn up several early instances of "have little problem" where that phrase isn't immediately followed by with. For example, from Sir Josiah Stamp (a British author), The Calculus of Plenty (1935) [combined snippets]:

Apart from these differentials, surplus of produced plenty has little problem of measurement on the supply side, but it shares much the same difficulties as unused capacity on the demand side.

From an unidentified article in California Department of Social Welfare, Miscellaneous Publications, volume 12 (1938[?]) [snippet view]:

If the participant is aware of all the factors that go into computing his "wage" other than his production he will have little problem in adapting to it. The number of pieces completed per hour is usually computed in order to get a base rate.

From an unidentified item in Ice Cream Field (1948):

Regulations and milk control are very strict in the area and plants have little problem in meeting needs on this score. The dairy store reached a high peak in the immediate pre-war days and competition from this source had become a small problem. During the war most of these were closed.

From testimony of Frank Pace, director of the U.S. Bureau of the Budget, on December 5, 1949, in Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Monetary, Credit, and Fiscal Policies of the Joint Committee on the Economic Report, U.S. Congress (1950):

Mr. PACE. In the long run, your ability to control fiscal policy could be materially weakened with a governmental capital budget. Since business is operated on a profit motive, it has little problem in the presentation of a capital budget. Since Government is in business to protect and serve the people, however, and its motivation is essentially different, the presentation of the Government's budget on a capital basis would serve little purpose.

And from Walter Smith, Social Attraction Between Elementary School Children and Student Teachers (1950):

... these teachers would have little problem of rapport and could quickly gather more valid results than could be secured by the writer. However , after many visits to the Kindergarten and second grade rooms the writer felt that he had established such a relationship with the children that they would feel secure enough in his presence to respond to the test.

In fact, an Ngram chart of "have little problem with" (blue line) versus "have little problem in" (red line) versus "have little problem of" (green line) for the period 1900–2019 indicates that "have little problem in" was slightly more common than "have little problem with" until about 1985:


Possible sources of 'has/have little problem with'

As for the origin of "has/have little problem with," I suspect that it has two sources: the kindred expressions "has/have little trouble with" and "has/have no problem with."

One early example in which the idiomatic form appears near an older related form is in Transcript of the Fifth Annual New Product Seminar (1959) [combined snippets]:

Obviously many articles of commerce do not lend themselves to this type of discussion [about the suitability of advertising certain products "in a mixed company of adults and children"]. This is where the corporation axe will fall. The axe really falls in the areas of medicine advertising. We seldom have any problem with food; the good taste policy has little problem with food. But, it has with medicines involving certain parts of the body. The kidneys, the stomach, the bowels, the pores and the gums seem to be favorite areas that are affected by the good taste policy.

The case for "have no problem with" as a possible forebear of "have little problem with" is circumstantial but highly suggestive. Here is the Ngram chart for Ngram chart for "have little problem with (blue line) versus "have few problems with" (red line) trimmed to cover the period the period 1900–1970:

And here is the same chart with "have no problem with" (green line) added to the comparison:

Clearly, "have no problem with" is also a creature of the twentieth century—but it is well established by the time the first instances of "have little problem with arise. One early instance of "have no problem with" occurs in "Report of the Student Christian Association of India and Ceylon" in Reports of the Student Christian Movements, October 1, 1914, to September 30, 1915 (1915):

X. Foreign Students.

We have no problem with foreign students ; our problem is the opposite. Year by year more and more of our students go out to England, America, Germany, Japan, China, and other countries in the West and the East. This is the problem with us. We have not yet been able to trace these students in any real sense. We know that in some countries like America and England the Student Movements are trying to help them in all ways they can. But we cannot say even that way all our students are reached. The Government has organized an Indian Student Committee in London to deal with Indian students, but this also is not satisfactory.

Another appears in testimony by James Crowther (a clergyman) of Seattle, Washington in U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, "Japanese Immigration" (July 26, 1920):

Mr. CROWTHER. I have no difficulties with certain Japanese who are my neighbors in a good section of this city. I have no difficulties with them. We have them in our church. We have no problem with them at all. They are perfect gentlemen in all of their deportment in the church.

The phrase "have little difficulty with" goes back to the early 1800s, as this Ngram chart indicates:

The earliest Google Books match for the phrase is from John Rippingham, Rules for English Composition, and Particularly for Themes (1813):

If the pupil have been familiarized with the former question , he will have little difficulty with this one ; and may therefore, with less delay, be forwarded to the third part of the work.


Assessment

Although it is generally true that problem is a count noun, the idiomatic form "have little problem with" certainly treats problem as a mass noun. This is similar to the way difficulty is understood in the comparable (and much older) phrase "have little difficulty with," but English speakers use difficulty as a mass noun in a much wider range of situations than they do problem.

My sense is that "have little difficulty with" is one significant influence on the emergence of the U.S. idiom "have little problem with," but that another and more more immediate influence was the appearance of "have no problem with." In the latter expression, problem can be understood a a singular count noun—as in "not a single problem"—and that is probably how the great majority of early instances of the expression were intended. But it can also be applied in situations where the speaker or writer has a mass noun in mind.

Consider this unusually early instance of the combined phrase "have little or no problem with" from "The Buyer and His Problems: The Problem of Inventory," in The Upholsterer & Interior Decorator (February 15, 1924):

Many stores, recognizing it as a necessity, provide compensatory privileges for their employees which offset the overtime. One firm, for instance, during stock taking week, when overtime is unavoidable, make up for it by giving their employees in turn a half day off. Where the dealings of the firm with its employees concerning inventory overtime is handled on a fair-minded basis, the buyer should have little or no problem with the sales force, but if the store uses it as a pretext for demanding extra work without any recognition of service rendered, it is easy enough to see that the attitude of the sales force toward inventory might be a very tangible problem.

From an unidentified item in Proceedings of the First Pacific Northwest Regional Planning Conference at Portland, Oregon (March 5–7, 1934): (1934) [snippet view]:

Fourth, grazing lands of the first grade are usually situated in areas near mountains , and consequently have little or no problem with either grazing or water. This type of land may afford headquarters for ranches operating some lower grades of land in conjunction.

From an unidentified item in Bankers Magazine (July–December 1942) [combined snippets]:

...continues on with his work, of course, but the stated work week terminates at 12 o'clock, when the time record of the next ensuing work week begins.

Hence we have little or no problem of under-time. Under the former basis a considerable time loss was incurred each week through building up a time cushion for Saturday, which oftentimes was in excess of our actual needs for that day.

From an unidentified article in Monthly Review of Financial and Business Conditions (March 1943[?]) [snippet view]:

Furniture manufacturers producing war goods will have little or no problem in converting their facilities back to peacetime production, but the speed by which they may expand output is another story.

From Special Report of the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (1943[?]) [combined snippets]:

On Sept. 14 the NFG radio assured its listeners "that the Duce is in very good health"; Pavolini did the same in in his radio address of the 17th. Fascist propagandists have been hard at breaching this wall of doubt. The CORRIERE DELLA SERA's question late in December, indicates that they have failed in their purpose. The failure is even more remarkable when it is remembered that they would have little or no problem if they could but "produce" the Duce at some public function or even put him directly before a microphone.

From U.S. Department of Labor, Division of Labor Standards, "The ABC of Absenteeism and Labor Turnover" (1944):

Special studies of plants all operating in the same community, all facing common problems, however, show that while absenteeism and turnover are seriously impeding production in one firm, another may have little or no problem of this kind. A worker in the first plant is not likely to say that he is staying away from work or leaving his job because he just can't stand it any more. He gives a reason which sounds better.

These examples offer some (very slight) basis for hypothesizing that the idiom "has/have little problem with" may have evolved from the slightly longer form "has/have little or no problem with"—although, in Google Books search results, only a couple of instances of the latter antedate the earliest instances of "has/have little problem."

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