Uncountable nouns with/without The

Hi, everybody!
As far as I understand, It's not correct to use any articles before uncountable nouns. So I can put no articles before such nouns as salt, coffee, water, etc. But recently I've met an interrogative sentence in a grammar book:
could you pass the salt?

Could you explain me why they used the before salt? In that grammar book I didn't find clear explanation.

Thank you in advance!
 
  • sdgraham

    Senior Member
    USA English
    It's a shorthand reference to the container containing the substance.

    Thus we say:

    Pass the salt (shaker)
    Pass the coffee (pot)
    Pass the water (bottle)
    etc.
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    Now I understood. So we deal with countable nouns such as the container containing the substance. Thank you.

    << edit: only refering to indefinite articles below >>


    Yeah, it forces us to make this interpretation, because visualising the actual noun is impossible, because you can't have "a salt" or "a coffee" meaning the product itself, it either stands for its container, or a measure of it.

    So a coffee is a cup of coffee, or pass me the coffee (jar) in a supermarket.
     
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    I disagree with the above, and I also disagree with the statement that it is incorrect to use articles before uncountable nouns. You certainly can't use indefinite articles, but it is perfectly natural and grammatical to use "the" before uncountable nouns if you are speaking of an identifiable amount, quantity, group, or body of the thing named:

    I put the salt in the salt shaker, the sugar in the sugar bowl, and the flour in the flour canister.

    The water from the mountain spring was cold and delicious.

    The baker took the bread out of the oven.

    It is time to harvest the wheat.

    All the gold in the vault was stolen by bandits.

    I would not do that for all the tea in China!
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    You certainly can't use indefinite articles, but it is perfectly natural and grammatical to use "the" before uncountable nouns if you are speaking of an identifiable amount, quantity, group, or body of the thing named:
    I don't think anyone had the interpretation that this included definite articles, my understanding was that we were referring to indefinite articles.
    I see now that linking the example to the sentence that the OP made this connection, I think subconsciously I might have read "indefinite", being so used to explaining the rule.

    When you've got a specified and defined/determined individuality of an uncountable noun, definite article is fine, as illustrated in the examples above.
    I'm interested to see what is disagreed on "above" because I can't see anything that sdgraham or I said that is incorrect.
     
    I don't think anyone had the interpretation that this included definite articles, my understanding was that we were referring to indefinite articles.
    I am not sure why you would say this, when the very title of the thread is "Uncountable nouns with/without The".

    I see now that linking the example to the sentence that the OP made this connection,
    Indeed, it was all that the OP was asking about.

    I think subconsciously I might have read "indefinite", being so used to explaining the rule.
    Nevertheless, my post was unquestionably on the topic of the thread.

    I'm interested to see what is disagreed on "above" because I can't see anything that sdgraham or I said that is incorrect.
    sdgraham indicated that the use of "the" with indefinite articles was a reference to the container. That is not accurate, as I showed. As for why I disagreed with what you said, you might want to note that you admitted that you somehow (despite the name of the thread, and the question posed in the first post) didn't even know we were talking about definite rather than indefinite articles. You have now edited your own post. To remove a remark after someone has responded to it and then say "I don't see anything incorrect in my post" is disingenuous.
     
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    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    I am not sure why you would say this, when the very title of the thread is "Uncountable nouns with/without The".
    I have a bad habit of clicking top threads in EO and not reading the titles, my bad! :eek:
    Nevertheless, my post was unquestionably on the topic of the thread.

    If anything I said led you to believe you were off-topic, I apologise, I didn't mean to say any of the sort. It just seemed by referring to "the above", it included my and sdgraham's comments, which was what left me a bit confused, but now I understand.
     
    What is an identifiable amount?
    Do you mean we can use the before salt if we are speaking about volume of salt equivalent to a volume of container itself?
    Did I understand you right?
     
    No, it has absolutely nothing to do with any container; the container explanation you were given is not correct. By an identifiable amount, I mean "this particular quantity of salt here, over which I have control, or which I own, as opposed to salt generally".

    In the same way, one might make a general comment that "traditionally, bread is baked in ovens", but a baker giving instructions in his own shop might say say "in our shop, the bread is made in this oven, and the pastries are made in that other oven", because he is speaking of specific and identifiable bread: namely, the bread that is made in his shop, as opposed to bread in general.
     
    No, it has absolutely nothing to do with any container; the container explanation you were given is not correct. By an identifiable amount, I mean "this particular quantity of salt here, over which I have control, or which I own, as opposed to salt generally"...

    Thank you very much! Now I understood what you meant by an identifiable amount. Your help was very useful!
     
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