Indefinite article before uncountable "drink" nouns, e.g. "a water"


I have been reading Bad for You (a novel) for the last seven days. I have seen in the novel that the writer used the indefinite article a before a uncountable noun water.

I glanced at Linc again. His grin was still in place, but he rolled his eyes as if he was amused with his dad.

“Okay, well, thank you. It didn’t take me too long to get settled in though,” I said, feeling the need to say something. I wasn’t good with small talk.

“Good. I’m glad you’re ready to dive in. Please, have a seat. Can Linc get you a water?”

However, I do not think that we can put the indefinite articles (a and an) before uncountable nouns (water, milk, wine). As per my opinion, the author should have said:

“Good. I’m glad you’re ready to dive in. Please, have a seat. Can Linc get you a glass of water?”

“Good. I’m glad you’re ready to dive in. Please, have a seat. Can Linc get you a bottle of water?”


Posted 2014-05-28T02:59:44.193

Reputation: 3 999

I remember that we have a question on ELL about "a beer", but I can't remember which one. – Damkerng T. – 2014-05-28T03:01:22.210

@DamkerngT. Thanks for your quick response. I think in the modern English we can say a bear, a tea, a coffee and a wive when we are ordering them in a hotel or anywhere, but a water does not sound natural to me! Does it work with water as well? – user62015 – 2014-05-28T03:06:37.817

Fersher it works with water. You can't sit down in a restaurant without their putting a water in front of you. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-05-28T03:08:06.933

@user62015 What StoneyB said. :) – Damkerng T. – 2014-05-28T03:09:24.663

@DamkerngT. Thanks a lot. Just confirming again so we can use a water as well right? If yes then English is a very funny language! – user62015 – 2014-05-28T03:14:14.790

@StoneyB Thanks a lot. Just confirming again so we can use a water as well right? If yes then English is a very funny language! – user62015 – 2014-05-28T03:14:53.567

@user62015 Yup, you can. There's a lot of spaghetti code in English - and other languages, too. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-05-28T03:18:09.027

@StoneyB I have a new question. Could you answer it here or should I post a new question? Please let me know which one would be a better option to say: 1) She had on tight jeans with a pair of fucking pink heels.
2) She had on a pair of tight jeans with a pair of fucking pink heels.
– user62015 – 2014-05-28T03:19:32.650

3@user62015 Nobody's going to notice anything but the fucking, so it doesn't matter. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-05-28T03:37:39.447

@user62015 As a Bostonian, I feel the need to correct your deployment of the amazingly versatile word "fucking". To say of a woman's footwear that they are "fucking pink heels" is to express incredulity that she has on pink heels (perhaps it's before Memorial Day). I think perhaps the idiom you are reaching for is "fuck-me red". Note that you cannot substitute "pink" for "red" without turning it into a very different vulgar idiom.

– Codeswitcher – 2014-05-28T03:45:33.840

P.S. You may just want to post it as a new question. – Codeswitcher – 2014-05-28T03:46:52.270

@StoneyB Thanks a lot. I am so sorry being a pain for you! Could you please let me know when should we say a pair of jeans or blue jeans, tight jeans (without a pair) etc? – user62015 – 2014-05-28T04:05:58.703

@Codeswitcher Thanks for your response. I am so sorry but I simply pasted it from the novel! – user62015 – 2014-05-28T04:07:22.827

1@user62015 Let this stand as a caution to you that not all usages you will find in the wild will be correct and worthy of emulation. In this case, the author betrays a scandalous ignorance of either couture or vulgarity. – Codeswitcher – 2014-05-28T04:09:56.733

@Codeswitcher Thanks a lot. I am so sorry being a pain for you! Could you please let me know when should we say a pair of jeans or blue jeans, tight jeans (without a pair) etc? – user62015 – 2014-05-28T04:12:25.777

Ask it as a question. – Codeswitcher – 2014-05-28T04:20:55.353

1@user62015, Since that's a separate English question unrelated to this question, please post it as a new question. – CoolHandLouis – 2014-05-28T04:21:15.163

@CoolHandLouis Sure. I am going to do that now! Thanks a lot. – user62015 – 2014-05-28T04:35:34.620

@Codeswitcher Sure. I am going to do that now! Thanks a lot. – user62015 – 2014-05-28T04:36:23.083

This question needs more focus I think. (1) The title is widely general about (a and an) before non-countable nouns. (2) Example is about drinks. (3) And the last bolded statement is an assertion about use of the definite article "the". You might want to (1) title this "Indefinite articles before non-countable "drink" nouns" and (2) remove the last bolded assertion. Otherwise, much more info would need to be added regarding your issues with other types of non-countable nouns. I think it would be best/easiest to move that broader issue (if it's important to you) to a separate question. – CoolHandLouis – 2014-05-28T11:23:56.147



1. Ordering, Asking, or Serving Water

In a restaurant or bar, the elliptical construction "a water" is acceptable, and understood to mean "a glass of water". One can often hear a request like, "Two waters and a coke, please!" or "Two cokes and a water, please!":

Examples of ordering water:

  • "May I have a water?" = "May I have a glass/cup of water?"
  • "Could we have two waters?" = "Could we have two glasses/cups of water?"

Some other examples from corpus:

  • "I would like a beer. What do you have on tap?"
  • "...And one for my friend." (Where one references "a beer".)
  • "... I can buy a juice or a water or a soda or a milkshake or a cappuccino" (The impossibility of a behavioural welfare economics, Comment by username "ianlee", September 25, 2012 at 01:40 PM)

2. Extended Discussion on Asking for Water

This can extend to other situations where a glass/cup would be available and a sense of serving is understood. In a home during a party in which food and drinks are served, or especially during a cocktail party, offering or asking for "a water" would be common. However, if you were just a visitor/friend, it's common to ask for "some water", especially if you don't mind it coming from the tap. Otherwise, one would ask for a bottle of water.

Situations in which "a water" would probably not be used:

  • The man went to the well to get me some water. (Focusing on a massive source shifts the meaning to the uncountable noun form of water.)
  • He poured some water into a glass. (Focusing on the water itself being poured refers to the water itself.)
  • He poured a glass of water into another glass. (Focus is on the water being poured again, so "a glass of" is required.)
  • Set your smart phone to remind you to drink [some] water every hour. (One would not say "drink a water every hour".

3. Other uses of "a water".

  • "The classification of a water as potable (i.e. fit for drinking) or otherwise is based on the requirements of the European Communities (Drinking Water) (No 2) Regulations 2007 (S.I. No. 278 0f 2007)...Some coliform organisms are able to grow in soil and are not of faecal origin thus a second analysis is carried out for the presence of total coliforms, giving an indication of the general level of microbiological contamination of a water....Therefore, the more vegetable matter there is in water the greater the colour. Exceptionally, natural colour may arise from the presence of colloidal iron/manganese in a water but organic matter is almost always the cause."* (Water Services - North Tipperary County Council

    Comment: This refers to a body of water as a whole, rather than a portion of water.

  • "An image of a water lapping a flood-level indicator on a country road may be used in a news story." (Don’t let your CMS wreck your content, part 2)

    Comment: This similar to referring to "a body of water". In this case, "a water" is being used to refer to the iconic picture, stopped in time. The "body-of-water" as a whole, is lapping against something.

Other uses of "a water" in which water is used as a modifier or compound noun:

  • A water well.
  • A water filter.
  • A water soluble vitamin.
  • A water and acetone combination (Note that "combination" is the primary noun.)


Posted 2014-05-28T02:59:44.193

Reputation: 7 937

1This is what I wanted to know! Thanks a lot. One more question! So, should I avoid to say 'a water' or would it be fine if I use it in my daily life talking? – user62015 – 2014-05-28T04:40:42.517

1@user62015 The construction is fine as long as you mean one unit of a standard drinking portion for one person. This is common and native speakers will understand it. If you want a different (e.g. a pitcher or thimbleful, rather than a glass or bottle) or unspecified amount, don't say a water, because it will convey the wrong meaning. – Esoteric Screen Name – 2014-05-28T06:58:58.740

@user62015, I've updated the answer to help illustrate the typical uses of "a water" vs. "some water". Please see if that answers your question. – CoolHandLouis – 2014-05-28T11:14:19.480

"Could we have two glasses/cups of water?" Or bottles ;) – starsplusplus – 2014-05-28T13:45:47.667

I think you've made a good distinction here: you would only say "a water" when you're placing an order, and "some water" otherwise (like at someone's home). You could also say "some water" when placing an order but it would probaby be a less abbreviated sentence: Can I just have some water please? – starsplusplus – 2014-05-28T13:49:10.287

Also an aside on culture: In USA, if bread and (public supply) tap-water is served without your asking, it is considered complimentary, and you can usually ask for more which is also complimentary. However, in some other cultures, they may bring bread and water, and charge for it if you eat it. I know that's true for bread - not sure about water cost. – CoolHandLouis – 2014-05-28T15:13:30.373

Asking for "some water" is in a sense, literally that: a request for a quantity of water but not a container; if someone has a nearly-empty water glass in front of them, a request for "another water" would imply that the person would like another glass which is full with water, while a request for "some more water" could be satisfied by bringing a pitcher to the table and refilling the glass the person already has. – supercat – 2014-12-05T23:00:02.400