Posted tagged ‘abstract nouns’

Student Stumper 31: Can abstract nouns be specific?

November 2, 2011

QUESTION: How can I know if an uncountable noun, which is modified by an adjective, is specific or not? Should I ignore the modifier when deciding the use of the definite article or zero article?

ANSWER: This question was recently posted on my YouTube channel. The advanced ELL provided lengthy examples of abstract nouns in context with and without the definite article. I gave an initial response already, but the topic truly warrants further discussion. Would you care to join in?

What exactly is confusing about the use of articles with abstract nouns? There are at least two sources of confusion:

  • (1) Confusion can arise from the guideline we often give about generic and specific references. Learners might associate abstract nouns with generic references and conclude that the definite article can’t be used with words such as intervention, affection, and politics.
  • (2) Confusion can also stem from the assumption that a modifier makes a noun specific, so phrases like biomedial intervention, genuine affection, and British politics are specific and require use of the definite article.

Explanation 1: A noun that is both abstract and uncountable can be used in either a generic or specific reference.

a. intervention

  • (generic) The problem escalated, and [zero article] intervention was required.
  • (specific) Despite the timely intervention, a positive outcome was not attained.
  • (specific) Unfortunately, the intervention was not successful.

b. affection

  • (generic) [zero article] Affection between owners and pets is natural.
  • (specific) The deep affection between the woman and her cat was obvious.
  • (specific) The affection between those those was genuine.

Explanation 2:  As seen above, it’s the context that makes a noun specific, and not necessarily the use of a modifier. It was the intervention which was needed and which was given in a timely manner.  It was the affection which existed between the woman and her cat. Compare:

c. intervention: They say that [zero article] biomedical intervention can slow down the aging process.

d. affection: [zero article] Deep affection among cousins is common.

In the above examples, the modifier explained the kind or type, but it didn’t make the abstract, uncountable noun specific.

Explanation 3: A noun can be both uncountable and countable. Politics is an example:

e.  politics

  • (generic – uncountable) John entered [zero article] politics at a young age.
  • (generic – plural noun) I try not to get involved in [zero article] office politics.
  • (specific – plural noun) The office politics continued to make my job harder, so I eventually left the company.

Feel free to contribute your own examples.


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