I am utterly confused with the rule associated with the use of what, what a and how in exclamations.

According to a Collins Grammar book, the rule is as follow:

- How + adjective/adverb e.g. How beautiful!

- What a + singular countable noun e.g. What a mess! ?

- What + uncountable noun and plurals e.g. What nonsense! What big feet!

Can anyone explain the What a mess! as mess is clearly uncountable. Is it an exception to the rule or is there an explanation behind it?

Thank you.

1 2

Messes can be counted. There's a mess in the living room, and another in the kitchen. That's two messes.

Best wishes, Clive
Hi Clive,

Thanks for your answer but what about What a shame! Surely shame can not be counted?!


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Hi Manue,

Welcome to the Forum.

what about What a shame! Surely shame can not be counted?!

That certainly is a little trickier. I think the answer is that the word 'shame' has different meanings, including -

a feeling, eg I've never felt such shame

a capacity to feel shame, eg She has no shame

a thing/action that someone regrets, eg It's a shame that she lost her job.

It's with this last meaning that I can reply 'Yes, what a shame!'

Best wishes, Clive

Thank you once again for your help. I understand it now but I think that I will keep this particular example until the end of the session as it might confuse them ;-)


No, actually mess is countable.  You can make more than one mess and they are messes.
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What about:

"what a relief!" (uncountable)

"what a pity!" (uncountable)

Anonymous"what a relief!" (uncountable)
"what a pity!" (uncountable)
They are OK. shame, pity, relief, and probably many others are 'nearly uncountable'. They allow the determiner a in certain circumstances, such as with exclamatory What a ...!

mess/mes/ noun ( countable ,usually singular)
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