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joigus

"Belief", "Beliefs," and "Issues of Belief"

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Hi, again. I'm kind of obsessive-compulsive linguistically. Plus I have a (small) problem.

My question has to do with the grammatical splitting of English nouns into countable/uncountable, that has little to do with meaning. I understand most people take a stance much more utilitarian than mine. That really resonates with me. But,

I've met problems with words like "input" or "advice" before. When you are under the obligation of teaching your students proper English, and you know they're going to be judged by the level of it, this trivial matter kind of crosses some line. "Input" and "advice" are uncountable. So, if you want to refer to one, let's say, instantiation of the concepts, you use formulas like using a determiner of sorts:

"I'm going to give you a piece of advice"

or,

"Let me give you some input"

What would be a natural companion for "belief"? In a slightly different use of the word, it acquires the countable character to mean "a particular item of belief." Then the plural becomes "beliefs." I know that to be valid in British English. Is it also in American English?

But let's say I want to avoid that. One thing that concerns me both as teacher and as speaker is to develop a trick that doesn't require to stop and think about grammar while you're speaking or writing, so that the language flows more naturally. Let's say I want to find a trick to avoid using it as countable by using a determiner. Somehow, "a piece of belief" doesn't sound right to me. "A sample of belief" doesn't do it for me either. "A point of belief" or "a belief issue" somehow sound better...

Another option is to completely forget about the distinction between "belief" as countable and "belief" as uncountable.

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7 minutes ago, joigus said:

Another option is to completely forget about the distinction between "belief" as countable and "belief" as uncountable.

I'm afraid I can't see it as anything but countable. Can you give an example where you think it is uncountable?

But the division into countable and uncountable is fairly arbitrary, especially for abstract nouns. (And let's not mention "data", which some people wrongly(😈) think is countable.)

 

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If you’re talking about religious belief, than “a tenet of belief” (or “a tenet of this belief”) would work in some circumstances, where you are referring to one discrete element. Similar to the “point” you mentioned.

A specific example or two might clarify this better.

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Posted (edited)
35 minutes ago, Strange said:

I'm afraid I can't see it as anything but countable. Can you give an example where you think it is uncountable?

This is what I would like to do. It's the simplest solution and it seems generally accepted by most native speakers.

My problem is better illustrated by Oxford Dictionary:

Quote

[uncountable] a strong feeling that something/somebody exists or is true; confidence that something/somebody is good or right

  •  belief in something/somebody I admire his passionate belief in what he is doing.
  • belief in God/democracy
  • The incident has shaken my belief (= made me have less confidence) in the police.
  •  belief that… They share a belief that there is life after death.

There's one more "different meaning" (I don't see that much of a difference). But then you come across this:

Quote

[countable, usually plural] something that you believe, especially as part of your religion

  • religious/political beliefs
  • A society should be judged on its beliefs and values.
  •  belief about something Some people hold beliefs about the world that are not supported by science.

https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/belief?q=belief

35 minutes ago, Strange said:

And let's not mention "data", which some people wrongly(😈) think is countable.

For that one I've got "data" vs "datum," but English has a love-hate relationship with Latin words. :D  

28 minutes ago, swansont said:

If you’re talking about religious belief, than “a tenet of belief” (or “a tenet of this belief”) would work in some circumstances, where you are referring to one discrete element. Similar to the “point” you mentioned.

A specific example or two might clarify this better.

Yes, it's like there is some nuance I can't quite wrap my head around (as to why do you need the distinction).

An example of the uncountable use, to me, could be:

"[...] on matters of religious belief"

An example of the countable (I think, would be):

"People have conflicting beliefs about the subject"

It's kind of confusing (to me, at least) to use have same words with very close meaning, and with different grammatical character. There must be a nuance, but I can't quite put my finger on it.

Edited by joigus
would --> could

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21 minutes ago, joigus said:

My problem is better illustrated by Oxford Dictionary:

Hmmm. I'm not one to argue with the experts who write dictionaries... BUT I don't really see any of those as being uncountable, except the police one, possibly. 

After all, if you can prefix it with "a" then I think it is countable. You can't (normally) say "a bread" but you can say "a beer" when it is being used as countable ("I'll have a beer", "we'll have two beers", etc. as opposed to just "I'll have [some] beer"). 

Maybe the concept of uncountable shouldn't be applied to abstract nouns?

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Posted (edited)

  

14 minutes ago, Strange said:

Maybe the concept of uncountable shouldn't be applied to abstract nouns?

That seems as a reasonable solution. Why don't you propose that to Oxford? I would come out to support you in the end. 👍

I think some distinctions must have a historical reason...

Edit: I also think some old-school lexicographers are overly obsessed with keeping old structures. I'd like to look at language more as an evolving structure, and pay more heed to what the modern use is. But the fact that some of these old structures are an issue in exams is painfully real. Students are required to say "I'm well" instead of "I'm good" although the use of the word has clearly changed in the speakers' minds. There are many other examples.

Edited by joigus
correcting mess with quotation function and re-writing answer

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Save yourself some grief. Just give feedback instead. 

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Just now, iNow said:

Save yourself some grief. Just give feedback instead. 

A piece of feedback?

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Just feedback. 

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Posted (edited)
On 6/21/2020 at 9:02 AM, joigus said:

...What would be a natural companion for "belief"? In a slightly different use of the word, it acquires the countable character to mean "a particular item of belief." 

The best natural companion for "belief" I can think of, in the religious context, is "WANT."  People say they believe when they WANT to believe.  People may not really believe things but want to believe things.  They are told they MUST believe certain things to be a good person, so they SAY they believe from social pressure.

Edited by Airbrush

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5 minutes ago, Airbrush said:

The best natural companion for "belief" I can think of, in the religious context, is "WANT."  People say they believe when they WANT to believe.  People may not really believe things but want to believe things.  They are told they MUST believe certain things to be a good person, so they SAY they believe from social pressure.

I see. Well, yes, I quite agree with that. But your comments are more about meaning, and refer to the word "believe" as a verb. My problem was with the word "belief" as a noun, and was a rather simple-minded grammatical question. :)

Thank you.

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I tend to consider all of it "beliefs", which makes me focus on the trustworthiness. There are things we believe in (beliefs) that don't have much to support them but we hope are true, and other things we're asked to believe with no evidence at all. And then there are things we believe that are based on mounds of evidence and observation and prediction. The key is how much you can trust what you believe.

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My Latin Master at school was a stickler for prescriptive grammar and "proper" syntax in both spoken and written English such as the correct use of fewer/less, rather/instead, which/that, and of course that damned split infinite.

On the other hand, my English Master was quite hip and laissez faire with a "if it sounds right, it is right" attitude and that language should be allowed to evolve without being stifled by out-dated traditions.

Whichever approach one takes, English has a peculiar set of inconsistent rules that I image are quite difficult for a non-native speaker to grasp; not to mention frustrating!

As for using belief as a noun I'd Keep It Simple Sir, use basic determiners and go with this:
 

On 6/21/2020 at 5:02 PM, joigus said:

Another option is to completely forget about the distinction between "belief" as countable and "belief" as uncountable.


The less there is then the less there is to confuse.



 

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@Phi for All and @Dord. I agree with your practical POV. @Strange's is, as I understand, very much the same. I would love to drop the distinction and use it in a freer way.

It's just that some of my students are going to face Cambridge exams and sometimes I have to curb my offhand ways and try to remind myself of the rigour, which I tend to forget.

For example, we're supposed to use either British English or American English, but I can't help mixing some expressions, both in pronunciation and spelling.

schedule, figure, route, ...

colour/color, etc.

It's enough to make you nuts. 

57 minutes ago, Dord said:

[...] and of course that damned split infinite.

I love split infinitives. How else could I,

boldly go where no man has gone before?

I think some language police people are spoiling all the fun in language. They're like chaperones.

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Posted (edited)
14 hours ago, joigus said:

@Phi for All and @Dord. I agree with your practical POV. @Strange's is, as I understand, very much the same. I would love to drop the distinction and use it in a freer way.

It's just that some of my students are going to face Cambridge exams and sometimes I have to curb my offhand ways and try to remind myself of the rigour, which I tend to forget.

For example, we're supposed to use either British English or American English, but I can't help mixing some expressions, both in pronunciation and spelling.

schedule, figure, route, ...

colour/color, etc.

It's enough to make you nuts. 

I love split infinitives. How else could I,

boldly go where no man has gone before?

I think some language police people are spoiling all the fun in language. They're like chaperones.

When people say "Well, the dictionary says..."  they obviously don't realize that a modern dictionary is a contemporary record of usage and not an authority. The people at large determine the usage in any given period.

Edited by StringJunky

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2 minutes ago, StringJunky said:

When people say "Well, the dictionary says..."  they obviously don't realize that a modern dictionary is a contemporary record of usage and not an authority.

Spot on. +1

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Posted (edited)
11 minutes ago, joigus said:

Spot on. +1

Given that English is the bastard product of at least four distinct languages, how can there be strict rules? There are rules if one understands the etymology of a style or word, say latin.

Edited by StringJunky

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Posted (edited)
42 minutes ago, StringJunky said:

Given that English is the bastard product of at least four distinct languages, how can there be strict rules?

That's one of the most fascinating features of English, which is, of course, a life-long project for me to understand.

Another observation is: In English you have a sort of a nucleated but de-centralised structure of different authorities of several degree. Oxford prescriptions, Merriam-Webster prescriptions, etc. Quite different from Spanish, for example. That's at least my intuition of how it works and organizes itself, and interfaces.

Maybe just coincidental, but this strongly parallels how the Protestant and the Catholic worlds have organised themselves throughout history. The Protestant, more multi-branched; the Catholic, more unified around a leader. It's only very recently that Spanish academies have clustered, so to speak, in a similar way.

Edited by joigus
"more unified" --> "unified"

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23 minutes ago, joigus said:

That's one of the most fascinating features of English, which is, of course, a life-long project for me to understand.

Another observation is: In English you have a sort of a nucleated but de-centralised structure of different authorities of several degree. Oxford prescriptions, Merriam-Webster prescriptions, etc. Quite different from Spanish, for example. That's at least my intuition of how it works and organizes itself, and interfaces.

Maybe just coincidental, but this strongly parallels how the Protestant and the Catholic worlds have organised themselves throughout history. The Protestant, more multi-branched; the Catholic, more unified around a leader. It's only very recently that Spanish academies have clustered, so to speak, in a similar way.

I think French might formally prescribed  (single nucleus) as well and has an authoritative body managing it.

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2 minutes ago, StringJunky said:

I think French might formally prescribed  (single nucleus) as well and has an authoritative body managing it.

I don't know. It's been a while since I studied French. But what you say is definitely what I would expect.

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1 hour ago, joigus said:

+1. Very interesting. I find it amusing that in German spoons are boys, forks are girls, and knives are hermaphrodites. :eyebrow:

Yes. All that gender stuff seems weird as an English speaker. I also found it interesting that contrary to my original assumption, it wasn't the gentrified languages that permeated the masses but Scandanavian  ones who actually mixed with the natives of the day.

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Posted (edited)
On 6/21/2020 at 5:02 PM, joigus said:

What would be a natural companion for "belief"? In a slightly different use of the word, it acquires the countable character to mean "a particular item of belief." Then the plural becomes "beliefs." I know that to be valid in British English. Is it also in American English?

Let me first address your particular question.

The phrase "a particular belief" covers what you are looking for in both British and American English.

If you want a plural you would need a collective auxiliary noun as well.

" a particular set of beliefs"

"a particular list of beliefs"

 

This exemplifies both the correct use of the word particular as well as an important point about the English language.

1 hour ago, joigus said:

Very interesting. I find it amusing that in German spoons are boys, forks are girls, and knives are hermaphrodites

Yes StringJunkie's reference contained some thought provoking ideas, but also some errors for instance I don't think the suthor correctly understands the difference between the perfect and the imperfect verb forms.

But he has completely missed the big difference between English and other European languages.

In most languages further information is provided by endings to words. In English the information is provided by additional (auxiliary) words.
This happens with all types of words but most particularly with nouns and verbs.

So English is not interested in assigning fictious genders to nouns but is interested in the abiltiy to modify theor meaning by the use of auxiliary words.

For instance the noun "sheep" refers to an indefinite number of the animal from a single one to any number you choose.

This may be modified by referring to a particular group of sheep  -  "a flock of sheep"  or "John's flock of sheep" as distinct from "Fred's flock of sheep"

Note the we now have two flocks of sheep, but it is the auxiliary noun 'flock' which becomes plural.

So English has many types of noun to facilitate this.

Unfortunately, because English is also a bastardised language as noted, this does not always work smoothly and exceptions must be learned the hard way.

 

Note how many times in the preceeding I have used the word 'particular' to identify one option when there are several available.

 

Edited by studiot

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13 hours ago, studiot said:

Yes StringJunkie's reference contained some thought provoking ideas, but also some errors for instance I don't think the suthor correctly understands the difference between the perfect and the imperfect verb forms.

Where can you see the error, please? The article is quite long...

13 hours ago, studiot said:

In most languages further information is provided by endings to words. In English the information is provided by additional (auxiliary) words.

Yes, my favourite example are phrasals. The verb "look" is my preferred example:

look into

look after

look down on

look up to

...

Completely different meanings.

In Spanish those are fused:

"comprender", "aprender", "desprender", "reprender", "sorprender"

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