Student Stumper 31: Can abstract nouns be specific?

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.

21 Comments Add yours

  1. Mel says:

    How about “the Internet?” How would you explain:
    1. There are conflicting views on the relationship between [zero article] internet usage and loneliness.
    2. Since the 1990s, the Internet has had a drastic impact on culture and commerce, including the rise of near-instant communication.

    1. Hello Mel,

      Great question. I think we need to use “the Internet” to refer to the system. Your second example makes this kind of reference.
      The first example uses “intenet” as a noun modifier, an abstract concept.

      A similar example is The Matrix. Think of the movie, if you are familiar with it. Referring to the system that the machines created, we use “the Matrix”: Who controls the Matrix? How does one exit the Matrix? As moviegoers, we can also talk about (zero article) Matrix products: Do you want to shop for a Matrix costume for Halloween?

  2. Konstantin says:

    Hello Jennifer,
    I still have troubles in distinguishing modifiers which make an abstract noun specific or one of a kind.

    You give here example: [zero article] Deep affection among cousins is common.

    So according to this logic we should follow the whole pattern of modifier to the end and then conclude whether or not it’s specific or it specifies a type. But what confuses me is that I can’t see this line between a kind and a specific feature.
    I have some examples like
    The love of a child can sometimes be the most rewarding thing for parents.
    So we see here love of a child ( not specific child and in general, just like affection between cousins) and still THE occurs. In other words this little line between a modifier which shows us the type of a noun (which is not specific case) and a modifier which by showing this type concretize it and makes it specific ( underlining it out of diffirent types i.e. specifies it)
    If I were to say “The affection among me and my brother” it would specify it. Why then can’t we say “the affection among birds (birds are type of animals)”
    So this passage :
    “In the above examples, the modifier explained the kind or type, but it didn’t make the abstract, uncountable noun specific”
    doesn’t correspond another:
    As discussed in a previous section, a following modifier phrase can make it more specific,
    by referring to a particular instance of something, or a particular kind of something.
    The second one is taken from http://kentlee7.com/writ/articles.def.indef.pdf

    That just makes no sense to me. Thanks for reply.

    1. Konstantin says:

      Another thing that occured to me how to express that – when we point to the type of something we are already specifying it to certain extent anyway. The thing is to catch this extent and determine whether or not to use The(zero article). Another words: is that extent sufficient or it is not for using the(zero article). That’s the trickiest thing.

      1. Yes, it all boils down to whether or not your listener understands what you are referring to. If the subject is known and understood exactly, then the definition article can be used. As with pretty much all grammar, the more context there is, the fewer words and structures needed in our communication.

        Regards!

    2. Hello Konstantin,

      I think the structure “the X of the Y” narrows down the topic. We’re getting more specific, so the definite article is needed.
      Which love? The love of a child. (Not the love of a sibling, for example.)
      In contrast, “deep” describes degree. Compare:
      – Deep affection among cousins is common.
      – Deep affection grew between the two cousins. The affection between them was truly a beautiful thing. (2nd mention, “affection” became specific.)
      – The deep affection between a dog and its owner is long-lasting. (Similar to “the X of the Y.” Which kind of deep affection? The kind between a dog and its owner.)

      As explained, it’s the context that makes a noun specific, and not necessarily the use of a modifier.

      Does that help?

  3. Konstantin says:

    It’s clearer now,I believe this is a metter of practice. Thanks a lot.

  4. rena says:

    How about the following sentence?

    The original of a someting.
    The name of a dog.
    The quality of Kroos.
    The study of languanges.

    All these above sentences use “the” at the beginning of a noun. What does this mean?

    Can you explain to me?

    1. Hello Rena,

      I your examples, the prepositional phrases with “of” make the first noun specific. It’s like talking about literary works in general and then mentioning the literary works of Shakespeare. Whose? A specific set of works. Does that make sense?

  5. rena says:

    Also, I frequently see a title of a film using “the”.

    The gost and the darkness.

    I don’t know exactly which gost/darkness the writer is ferering to.

    1. The film must be about a ghost, right? So the title refers to that specific ghost in the movie and the darkness in which the viewer finds it. Does that make sense?

      There’s an old movie called The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.
      Which night? Specifically the one when the lights went out.
      Which lights? Specifically the ones in Georgia.

  6. rena says:

    Oh, I see. I’m still rather confused. Could you please give me a description in the following sentences?

    – Guide us to the Straight Paith. Which paith? This not clear.
    – The study of languages. Which study?
    – The name of a day? This would probably be talking about a particular name, right? Then, what name is it?

    – This is the tidings of the unseen. The first and second noun in this sentence is followed by “the”. Could you explain to me, please?

    1. 1. Which path? The straight one, the right one — as opposed to the wrong one, the confusing one. The writer believes there is only one right path, one true path to take.

      2. One can pursue many different things in life. There is knowledge about many different topics. The writer is talking about the study of languages — as opposed to the study of plants, the study of medicine, etc.

      3. Each day of the week has a name (Monday, Tuesday, etc.) Tell me the specific name of the day you are thinking of.

      4. Tidings = news, informationi. Unseen = people or things not visible yet. THE + adjective can refer to a group (the rich, the weak, the hungry, etc.) The writer is talking about news coming from the world we cannot see. There are two groups: the visible and the invisible.

      Does that make more sense?

  7. rena says:

    Yeah, that really does. Your explanation is easy to understand. Thank you so much for clarifying it to me, Jennifer.

  8. rena says:

    Hi Jennifer, If the second noun is not followed by an article, is the speaker talking in general? Or does the noun not make any choice?

    The choice of article will depend on such questions.

    If I’m to say “the choice of the article will depend on such questions”, it means that I’m talking about a particular article, right?

    Other examples.
    The meaning of noun.
    The glow of moonlight.
    In the title of movies.

  9. dwi says:

    Hi, could you give a desription about this use of the?

    – Aguero is on the bench. Bench is specific. Which bench?

    – If you don’t know what it means, look it up in the dictionary. Which dictionary?
    – Navish heads home at the far post. Which post?

    – Ronaldo shooting just over the bar. Which bar?
    (from football comments)

    In the plural, in the abstract, the public, in the media, on the street. Why do these use the definite article?

    1. Hello. Articles are tricky. Here are some ideas to consider.

      1. “Aguero is on the bench.” = This can only be said if both the speaker and listener know which bench it is. For example, there may be a picture with Aguero on a bench, so there’s only one bench it could be. Or the speaker and listener are talking in a building, and they both know of one bench inside or outside that buildling.

      2. “The dictionary” can be used to make a general reference to any dictionary. It’s not unlike telling a friend to talk to another “over the phone.” = any phone

      3. I’m not sure what “the far post” refers to.

      4. “Ronaldo is shooting just over the bar.” = If this is football, then it’s clear which bar is being mentioned. The one in the game. The one on the field. The one being used in this play.

      5. The public, the media = reference to a general group >>> the police, the community, the population

      6. “The abstract” and “the plural” refer to specific concepts. They contrast with “the concrete” and “the singular.” Also, we know that there are two forms, singular and plural, so “the plural” refers to one of the two known forms. It’s like saying “on the right” or “on the left.” There are only two known ways to go.

      I hope that helps!

  10. dwi says:

    Thank you. “The far post” is from soccer commentaries. Like the following.

    Downing crosses from deep on the left and Sakho gets above Shaw and powers a header into the side-netting at the near post! Which side-netting? Which near post?

    All these words are from soccer.
    ~ Aguero sit on the bench. There are many benches in a stadium. However, the speaker directly uses the.

    Poyet, Sako and Downing are in the midfield. Which midfield? This is from soccer as well.

  11. dwi says:

    Hi, I want to know wheather “the” has the same meaning with “this”?

    ~ Spurs take the three points on the opening day. On the opening day = on this opening? Also, which three points?
    ~ Chelsea has started brilliantly in the early stages. in the early stages = in these early stages? Which early stages?

    ~ There will be just the one minute of added time at the end of this first half. Why does the speaker not say “there will be just one minute of added time…? Why use “the”?

  12. akatsuki says:

    Hello. You said “use the definite article
    before the type of area a person can live in or visit, for example, the city, the suburbs, the mountains, the countryside, the sea/ the beach, etc.”

    Can’t I use the indefinite article in those above nouns?

    I prefer the city or the country. Does the speaker here talk about the city and the county in geneal? In other words, the speaker doesn’t refer to a specific city and country.

    1. Hello. Yes, you can use an indefinite article, but we often reserve that use for identifying a place:
      Surfer’s Paradise is a beach in Australia.
      Winchester is a suburb of Boston.

      Compare to our mention of types of land, types of geography:
      – My friend lives in the city. (Exact city either known or not specified because the focus is on “city” vs. “suburbs” or “countryside.”)
      – My family lives in the suburbs. (Exact city either known or not specified because the focus is on “city” vs. “suburbs.”)
      – My cousins live in the countryside. (Exact location, for example the state, either known or not specified because the focus is on “countryside” vs. “city.”)

      Your example: “I prefer the city to the countryside.” = You’d rather live in any city as opposed to being outside of all that activity and living in a quiet suburb or even the country.

      It could also be a reference to a specific city if the context makes it clear. For instance, if you’re speaking to a real estate agent and explaining where you want to find a home, you can say, “I prefer the city. I really don’t want to be out in the suburbs.” The agent knows you mean the city where you are currently located.

      Hope that helps.

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