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General Writing and Grammar Help/the use of the article "A" with uncountable nouns



Happy to see you at AllExperts again.

To tell you the truth, my mind is occupied with a grammar question.

Please look at the following examples:

1) It was A hard work.

2) A good knowledge of French

3)A sadness that won't go away

Well, I am sure you will say that 1) is WRONG because the word "work" is uncountable and the use of the indefinite article "A" is wrong in front of "work."
Also, I am sure you will say  2) and 3) are correct.

Well, here is my question: The words "work,"knowledge," and "sadness" are all uncountable in English. But why the article "A" can be used in front of "knowledge," and "sadness" but it cannot be used in front of "work"?

Would you please explain when we can use the article "A" in front of uncountable nouns? I am really confused. I have learned that the article "A" cannot be used in front of uncountable nouns. But, I sometimes see that it is used.


Please explain your reasons.

Thank you

Dear Hame:

Oh, the English language and its many twists and turns! This is a very good question, and a difficult one to answer, but I'll try:

You can use "a" preceding uncountable nouns because though you can't count knowledge, sadness, and work, you can "group" them, which leads one to "think in numbers." In other words, as you learn the language, your mind begins to automatically think before you form words in a sentence, depending on what you're thinking.

That's not a good example. Try this: though you can't count sadness, there is the axiom that declares that though you cannot count these words, you can put them into groups that consist of a certain VOLUME. For example, you could say, "Your sadness is greater than mine because three of my loved ones died today, and you have only sprained your finger," or "I have more work to do than you have; my body of work is larger than yours," or "Her knowledge of chemistry far exceeds her knowledge of math" (in volume, though not SPECIFICALLY in number).

Therefore, one could say, "A sadness like this has left her inconsolable. She will need time to heal," or "A work of this size and volume is a significant addition to our library," or "A knowledge of English grammar by itself will not suffice; you must learn about the intricacies of how thought can precede speech or writing."

It's about the "indefinable specifics" that go into language BEFORE it is spoken or written.

I hope this explanation makes sense! I have literally never given a single thought to this question, and I commend you for looking so deeply into the myriad hows and whys of language.

All the best,
Catherine Van Herrin  

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