Using indefinite articles before adjectives: "Let's have a good breakfast"

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  1. Let's have breakfast
  2. Let's have a good breakfast

I've learned that indefinite articles aren't used before uncountable nouns, so why is a used before the adjective "good" here?

Is there an exception to the rules or is it wrong?

Sanjar Igamov

Posted 2016-02-02T04:51:37.027

Reputation: 429

Answers

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Let's have breakfast.

Here the word breakfast is an abstract noncount noun. "Abstract" means that you can't touch it with you hands, roughly speaking.

Let's have a good breakfast.

Here the word breakfast is "modified" by the adjective "good". This allows us to use a.

Quirk et al.'s Comprehensive Grammar mentions this usage:

The partitive effect of the definite article in the history of Europe (example 5.58 [lb]) finds a parallel in the use of the indefinite article in such examples as these :

Mavis had a good education.
My son suffers from a strange dislike of mathematics. (ironic)
She played the oboe with (a) remarkable sensitivity.

The indefinite article is used exceptionally here with nouns which are normally noncount. The conditions under which a/an occurs in such cases are unclear, but appear to include the following:

(i) the noun refers to a quality or other abstraction which is attributed to a person;

(ii) the noun is premodified and/or postmodified; and, generally speaking, the greater the amount of modification, the greater the acceptability of a/an.

In the beginning of the section, the authors say:

Abstract nouns tend to be count or noncount according to whether they refer to unitary phenomena (such as events) on the one hand, or to states, qualities, activities, etc on the other.

So, with no pre-modification ("good"), the word breakfast denotes an "activity" (or a "vague collection of edible items"? I'm not a native speaker of English so I lack a fine-tuned comprehension of this).

Let's have breakfast. = Let's eat.

With the pre-modification, it denotes an "unitary phenomenon" (one good breakfast - you could imagine that as a single event, or a single set of good food).

Let's have a good breakfast. = Let's have one good eating event.

Recall that the article a/an originates from the word one.

You can post-modify breakfast and this will again allow you to use a/an, because it will no longer be "consumption of food" in general, but one instance of "eating", one event:

Let's have a breakfast that will cost us at least $200. (We postmodified "breakfast" with a relative clause)


Quirk et al., A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Unit 5.58, "The articles with abstract noncount nouns"

CowperKettle

Posted 2016-02-02T04:51:37.027

Reputation: 36 949

1+1 although confused as to the designation of breakfast as an abstract noun. I mean can't we see, taste, touch, smell, hear breakfast? (The same for coffee, which I don't think is abstract.) – GoDucks – 2016-02-02T07:40:00.070

@GoDucks - thank you for the comments! So "let's have breakfast" is like "let's have meat"? I thought the word denoted an activity. – CowperKettle – 2016-02-02T08:41:07.097

1Well, when you put it that way, I guess I am not, after all, saying Let's eat breakfast is like Let's eat meat. Put it that way, it's clear that breakfast is a different sort of noun. I can't pull breakfast out of the fridge like I can eggs, bacon, sausage, and more bacon, so I guess I was mistaking the components that went into the meal/activity of breakfast with the components themselves. Clearly we don't eat breakfast like we eat cheese and bacon and eggs. – GoDucks – 2016-02-02T08:52:31.330

1Breakfast is on the stove. Yeah, I know, I can smell it. But is one smelling breakfast or a food item that will be part of breakfast? Or is one using the name of the meal to stand for the food items of/in the meal? – GoDucks – 2016-02-02T16:51:45.763

2Counterexample: It's important to get an education. (No "good" or "bad" is necessary.) There is certainly something special about the names of meals. We tend to omit articles even when we conceptually equate the nouns with countable entities: Not ok: Let's have meal. But: Let's have breakfast is the same idea. It's not wrong to say I ate a breakfast but it's much more common to leave out the article. It's also common to use some, which we use with non-count nouns: Let's have some breakfast. – Jim Reynolds – 2016-02-03T06:29:57.220

She has good hair and She has brown hair but not She has a good hair or She has a brown hair unless she has only one such. – Jim Reynolds – 2016-02-03T09:23:46.047

1@JimR - As in: She has a brown hair in her breakfast. Time to start wearing a hair net :^). – J.R. – 2016-02-03T09:26:20.047

@JimReynolds - Hair is a concrete noun. – CowperKettle – 2016-02-03T09:28:11.767

Not necessarily, as with breakfast. Consider I love long hair. You can't hold that hair in your hands. – Jim Reynolds – 2016-02-03T09:44:56.030

@JimReynolds - interesting! I feel the temptation to start a new question on the concreteness of hair in "I love long hair". (0: – CowperKettle – 2016-02-03T09:55:29.447

1@Cop The feeling may pass with time. As they say, Hair today, gone tomorrow. – Jim Reynolds – 2016-02-03T10:21:47.333

Hi, Copperkettle. I just saw your answer. I don't agree with your classification of breakfast as an abstract noun. You can have two eggs (countable) and bacon (uncountable) for your breakfast. When they are combined, they become a mass noun. Almost all nouns related with food are mass nouns because people don't need to count them. They just eat 2 eggs and bacon as a whole which is called breakfast. You can touch it, even you can count how many pieces of bacon you have. Have you ever counted it? I have. Bacon could be countable, but no one bothers to count. That's why it is a mass noun. – None – 2016-02-09T16:59:02.147

@Rathony - thanks for the comment. Maybe I'm wrong in calling it 'abstract'. I had done some googling and I recall it was called abstract in some of the discussions on the web. Someone should start a question about it on ELL. I asked a somewhat related question, but it does not address the issue of "breakfast" being either a concrete or abstract noun.

– CowperKettle – 2016-02-09T17:08:19.777

1@CopperK - Maybe you're wrong, or maybe it's debatable. I think it's debatable. One could argue that you can't sense "breakfast" – not as an abstract idea. Sure, you can smell the bacon or taste the oatmeal or even hear the Rice Krispies, but those are merely "instances" of a breakfast. It's an interesting gray area. – J.R. – 2016-02-10T10:16:01.943

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Breakfast is both countable and uncountable, concrete and abstract.

As a meal, it's countable just like meal.

As the idea of a meal, the general notion, it's uncountable (just like "mealness").

noun

A meal eaten in the morning, the first of the day: a breakfast of bacon and eggs
[MASS NOUN]: I don’t eat breakfast

Entry for breakfast at Oxford Dictionaries

An idiomatic example of breakfast as countable: I bought three breakfasts this morning. Those tightwads stiffed me with the bill!

To have breakfast can involve eating one of the meals (most commonly) or to possess the notion: The jungle-dwelling tribes of New Pirtzonia don't have breakfast. They are a fragile people with extremely sensitive digestive systems. The very notion of eating before late afternoon makes them nauseous.

Breakfast can also be a verb:

They breakfasted on chicken eggs with chicken legs.

Shall we breakfast at seven?

While nouns are countable, uncountable, or both, based on some kind of real-world distinction (whether we can count them or not), ultimately the classification is a grammatical one: If we can make a noun in a given sense singular and plural, then it's countable. How else can we explain why we're always counting money while money is (normally) uncountable?

Jim Reynolds

Posted 2016-02-02T04:51:37.027

Reputation: 9 616

While the extended discussions are interesting and have a place, I offer this answer as what seems a parsimonious explanation of the issue: Breakfast is both countable and uncountable. – Jim Reynolds – 2016-02-03T04:20:03.343

Breakfast cannot be abstract. It is a mass noun which you can smell, touch, eat, and even count depending on nouns. You can't count (I mean it is extremely difficult to count) the number of grains in a bushel, but you can surely count the number of bacon in your breakfast plate. They are not abstract. They are just food, almost all of which is a mass noun. – None – 2016-02-09T17:03:03.167

@Rathony - Words like lunch and breakfast are borderline cases, and arguments can be made either way. One could argue, for example, that you can't smell or see "lunch" – you might be able to see a sandwich or smell the soup, because sandwich and soup are concrete, but lunch is still an abstract concept. That's a valid view; a cheeseburger is always a cheesburger, but lunch can be a cheeseburger, a salad, or a bowl of beans. And Jim and CopperK are not the only ones who think so.

– J.R. – 2016-02-10T10:09:48.457

@J.R. There is one important condition for a noun to be abstract. They are not composed of concrete things, e.g., what does happiness consist of? Money? Health? There is no concrete answer. However, What does breakfast consist of? There could be millions of food items that can be on your breakfast plate, but they are all concrete and you can eat them. That's why it is a mass noun. You can only feel or think about (imagine, etc.) abstract nouns e.g., "I feel sadness", "Religion is nonsense", etc. Not easy to know where it comes from, what it is, what impact it would have on your life. – None – 2016-02-10T10:23:18.860

@Rathony - We all agree it's a mass noun. My comment was addressed to your overly narrow assertion: "Breakfast cannot be abstract." Consider what Wikipedia says about abstract nouns: While this distinction is sometimes exclusive, some nouns have multiple senses, including both concrete and abstract ones; consider, for example, the noun art, which usually refers to a concept, but which can refer to a specific artwork in certain contexts. I'd say breakfast is similar: usually tangible, but able to be used abstractly.

– J.R. – 2016-02-10T10:33:38.980

Moreover, you're coming up with some pretty sloppy definitions of abstract nouns to support your position ("They are not composed of concrete things" "You can only feel or think about abstract nouns" "Not easy to know where it comes from"). Let's rely on more widely accepted definitions: they denote an idea, quality, or state rather than a concrete object; they are intangible; your five sense cannot detect them. Breakfast can be regarded in that way.

– J.R. – 2016-02-10T10:45:42.347

@J.R. Abstract noun: A noun that denotes an idea, emotion, feeling, quality or other abstract or intangible concept, as opposed to a concrete item, or a physical object. Is breakfast intangible? It is as tangible as any piece of art. I don't want to call your explanation sloppy, but very unconvincing. Do you know where happiness comes from and where it is? I know where my breakfast was this morning.

– None – 2016-02-10T10:51:00.137

@Rathony - Sure, breakfast is intangible. When you touch a breakfast, what does it feel like? Is it hard or soft? Hot or cold? Spongy or brittle? Smooth or rough? You can't answer that question, because breakfast, by itself, is abstract. (Note that I'm not saying it's always abstract – that's why you could find yours this morning.) – J.R. – 2016-02-10T10:56:39.827

Let us continue this discussion in chat.

– J.R. – 2016-02-10T11:05:42.073

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I don't see your problem. I don't see any problem with "a good breakfast". Perhaps you should find a new formulation for your oversimplified school rule "indefinite articles are not used before uncountable nouns". Perhaps you should improve your rule by adding that such structures as "a good breakfast" are normal language.

rogermue

Posted 2016-02-02T04:51:37.027

Reputation: 8 304

+1 for telling it like it is, and calling indefinite articles are not used before uncountable nouns an "oversimplified school rule". (Sure, uncountable nouns often feel at home with no leading indefinite article, but that's hardly the end of the story.) Yet it's easy to see how this might confuse a learner. I wouldn't say, "I'll eat sandwich at noon," because sandwich needs a determiner (e.g., "I'll eat a sandwich at noon"); however, I could say, "I'll eat breakfast at ten," or, "I'll eat a breakfast at ten." I can see where this might be confusing for a novice. – J.R. – 2016-02-02T15:47:16.200

A beginner should know that it is no good trying to understand the use of articles with rigid rules that always tell only the half of the matter. Especially learners whose mother tongue has no article think this is a main problem of grammar. I think that is the fault of the schools in such countries which make too many exercises about the use of articles, which is of minor importance. Everybody will understand a learner even if his use of articles isn't correct.As it is an idiomatic matter and a matter of experience I would never drill such things at the beginning. – rogermue – 2016-02-02T15:57:10.573

Yet @J.R. and rogeryourself, most of the time (you could probably actually count the times) indefinite articles are not used before uncountable nouns. Just as most of the time, a singular count noun has the indefinite article. These are accurate descriptions and characterizations of English, which – GoDucks – 2016-02-02T16:56:33.193

@J.R. When could you say *I'll eat a breakfast at ten*? How is that grammatical? – GoDucks – 2016-02-02T16:58:52.117

1@GoDucks - What do you say about "I'm in a hurry"? I never asked myself whether "hurry" is uncountable or not, I observed that the English say it in this way ( with "a"). – rogermue – 2016-02-02T17:03:25.380

@roger I agree that one can learn foreign language usage, even a foreign language, without grammatical instruction or analysis. But teachers and linguists seek to describe native speaker usage; this can be done with both generalizations and overgeneralizations. – GoDucks – 2016-02-02T17:20:37.100

In addition, sometimes we are just groping. No one has yet accurately formed a grand unifying theory as to when native speakers use the most frequently said word in English (the). In the meantime, what can learners do? Both observe how native speakers use it and try to come up with descriptions (sometimes called rules) of how it is used. – GoDucks – 2016-02-02T17:22:00.530

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Plenty of authors have written about eating a breakfast. It may not be common, but it's not ungrammatical.

– J.R. – 2016-02-02T18:42:04.197

1@J.R. - "the children eat a breakfast of cereal with toast" - postmodification detected! These linguistic terms do come handy in groping for the elusive regularities of usage. – CowperKettle – 2016-02-02T19:05:09.390

Yes @J.R. most the examples are post-modified, as in CK's answer. However, one usage (it looks like a native speaker) is Eat a breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner seems acceptable. But does this mean: Eat a morning meal, a midday meal, a midafternoon meal, and an evening meal or what? I would not say Eat a breakfast every day is 'good English'. – GoDucks – 2016-02-02T19:16:50.427

You should eat a breakfast. It's idiomatic and not modified, though we might more often just say "should eat breakfast." Got ta eat a breakfast, Marge. I'll fix ya some eggs. The 1996 film Fargo. (Result on Corpus of Contemporary American English.) – Jim Reynolds – 2016-02-03T04:27:30.243

so, there is no exact rules for it as I can see. – Sanjar Igamov – 2016-02-13T12:32:23.113

what about " I usually eat this kind of fish with a white sauce." – Sanjar Igamov – 2016-02-13T12:33:25.427