What I Learned Thanks to Sunny, a Korean Writer

I was teaching The Keys to Error-Free Writing yesterday, when Sunny, whose first language is Korean, asked me about the use of articles in a series.

Sunny wanted to know whether to repeat the articles a and an in a series of items. For example, she would wonder which of these sentences is correct: 

I would like a tuna sandwich, an apple, and a bag of chips for lunch.
I would like a tuna sandwich, apple, and bag of chips for lunch.

Which do you think is correct?

Before Sunny asked, I could have written both versions of that sentence.

Her question had crossed my mind, but I had never taken the time to research the use of articles in my many reference books. Her question made me do it. I had to: At the beginning of The Keys to Error-Free Writing, I tell attendees that if I don't know the answer to a question, I will find it.

Just three of my reference books deal with the articles question: The Chicago Manual of Style, The Gregg Reference Manual, and Fowler's Modern English Usage. They all agree it is preferable to repeat the articles, unless the items make up one unit or commonly appear together, as in "a knife, fork, and spoon."

Here are excerpts from the experts:

The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition: "With a series of coordinate nouns, an article should appear before each noun . . . a letter and a magazine came in the mail today. If the things named make up a single idea, the article need not be repeated: in the highest degree of dressage, the horse and rider appear to be one entity." Lynn's note: That last example uses the article the.

The Gregg Reference Manual: "As a rule, use a or an before each item in a series. However, if the series describes a single concept, use only one article at the outset: We need a scanner, a printer, and a shredder. But: The Benners live a hop, skip, and jump away from our house."

Fowler's Modern English Usage, Revised Third Edition: "In fixed phrases like a knife, fork, and spoon, the indefinite article is not repeated; but if emphasis is required, or if the sequence requires an as well as a (a minute, an hour, or a day) omission is not desirable."

Because of Sunny's question, "Do you repeat a and an before several things in a sentence?" I learned that I have frequently dropped an article when I should have included it. As a writer, a teacher, and a lifelong learner, I appreciate the lesson and have already started applying it. Did you notice my use in the previous sentence?

Lynn
Syntax Training

10 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting.

    Our in-house style has long been to include the article when it changes during a series (an apple, a banana, and an orange) but not when it is the same (a car, bus, and train).

    I’ll have to point our copyeditors and proofreaders to this post.

  2. Thank you for the very helpful post. I just discovered it today. I am just wondering if the same rules apply to the definite article. Can you please let me know? Thanks!

  3. I’ve been hunting for the rule on repeating the article the in a series of proper nouns (all of them are organizations). Although the sentence is for marketing purposes and it seems redundant to say the, five to six times, it sounds much better to me to repeat “the” before each organization’s name even though the same article “the” is used for all of them. Plus they are not being discussed as a whole, but as a list of organizations (each existing separately).

  4. Dear Lynn,

    I have a slightly different question and couldn’t find the right place to ask it, but since the questions is from a Korean, I’ll ask it here.

    Many Koreans learned that you can only use a singular noun after any, however I know that you can also use a plural noun after any, such as the common sentence in a business email:

    Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

    Can you please let me know the grammar rules for the use of singular and plural nouns after any?

    Thank you for your help.

  5. Hi, Patrick. Interesting question.

    As you correctly noted, both singular and plural nouns can come after “any”:

    –Do you have any ideas?
    –Do you have any idea why he is here?

    –Are there any leftovers in the refrigerator?
    –Is there any turkey left over from Thanksgiving?

    –Any question is a good question.
    –Any questions are appropriate.

    I can’t think of any rules regarding “any” with singular or plural nouns.

    I wonder whether you are thinking about subject-verb agreement, which does matter. If “any” is used with a plural noun, the verb is plural. With a singular noun, it’s singular. Notice the differences in my second and third sentence pairs above.

    Let me know if there is an aspect of your question I have missed.

    Lynn

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