Understanding, countable or not?



Read the sentence below-

"Christine Sterling’s determination to repackage her Olvera Street concept into something Chinese has been matched by her total lack of understanding of our culture, history, and taste."

I wonder if the word 'understanding' here is countable or uncountable

Sorry, if you find this question easy, stupid or useless, I'm a beginner.


Posted 2014-12-16T22:38:25.520

Reputation: 143

Uncountable. Rule of thumb: abstract concepts are uncountable. – Stephie – 2014-12-16T22:44:24.233

2@Stephie: My musings on this question lead me to suspect that rule of thumb may not be exactly an "absolute". – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2014-12-16T23:00:37.663

@Stephie abstract nouns uncountable? Whoa ...I am having a strange experience by reading this! :) – Maulik V – 2014-12-17T04:22:47.780

One understanding, two understanding.... Countable really means that you could say this. This does not mean that uncountables may not come in multiple instances, but then you use other words to express this. Think sugar: you have to either give a measurable amount (cup / pound of...) or use a description (some, a lot of, a bit of...). – Stephie – 2014-12-17T05:09:48.187



This question is not useless. It is not stupid. It is certainly not easy.

American English is my native and only language. Even so, I find that I'm not completely sure whether this specific instance of "understanding" is countable. I suspect that it is not, but I can't quite prove that it isn't.

On one level, we're talking about one understanding of Chinese sensibility, in contrast to other, better understandings of it. I have an understanding. You have an understanding. Christine has an understanding that is (or so we can easily assume) worse than both of ours. That's three understandings that I can easily count.

On another level, we're not talking directly about an understanding. We're talking about a lack. I can assume that her lack is more severe than my lack. I can further assume that my lack is still quite significant. I have no doubt at all that these are two countable lacks. The grammar of the sentence supports this notion -- she has a lack, one lack that is all her own.

If the sentence read "her total lack of an understanding", then I'd be certain that it was countable. If it read "her total lack of any understanding", then I'd be certain it was not.

I think that this is the uncountable sense. I think that "a total lack of understanding" is closer to "a lack of any understanding" than it is to "a lack of an understanding".

I suspect that we both need to wait for a better answer.


On second thought, I have to assume that this use is uncountable. The countable use would have to include something that implies counting, such as the indefinite article. The counting of "lack" can be implied by the genitive pronoun "her". The counting of this "understanding" isn't implied by anything, and that implies that there is nothing to count.

If this is the countable sense, then we should be able to make a plural form make sense. For instance, "Our understandings are different" seems to be a sensible use of the countable sense. However, if I talk about how both you and I lack understanding, "We both have a lack of understandings" doesn't seem as sensible. It does seem sensible to say "We both have a lack of understanding." In this context, the uncountable sense makes more sense.

Gary Botnovcan

Posted 2014-12-16T22:38:25.520

Reputation: 12 044

Would you please give a real life examples where "2 understanding" is being used. – None – 2019-08-31T12:55:05.030


Abstract nouns are generally uncountable but then it is not a rule of thumb. Depending upon the context, they can be used as countable.

EnglishPractice website quotes -

The uncountable form is used with a ‘general’ meaning whereas the countable form has a ‘particular’ meaning.

Cambridge Dictionary supports that.

In your case, it seems uncountable. But then, understanding can be used as a countable noun.

Have a nice time!

COCA gives 2 result of the phrase lack of an understanding over 430 results of lack of understanding

Maulik V

Posted 2014-12-16T22:38:25.520

Reputation: 66 188

"An understanding" has a slightly different meaning to me than "her lack of understanding". Two or more parties can reach an understanding, and still have a lack of understanding of the issue. In the first sense understanding is an agreement, and in the second it is a level of comprehension. Apologies for typos and brevity. I'm on my mobile and will elaborate later if necessary. – ColleenV – 2014-12-18T19:21:02.650


"Understanding" is not countable. You wouldn't say something like "five understandings".

You might be confused because people talk about partial understanding, or understanding something better. But understanding is continuous. You can have more or less, but you can't have two or three. Continuous things are not (directly) countable.

Adam Haun

Posted 2014-12-16T22:38:25.520

Reputation: 3 023