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I think the word single is not necessary because the article a or an has done the job.

So the phrase "a single object" should be simplified as "an object". What do you think?

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All answers are actually accepted. But I cannot do that. Thanks for your answers. :-) –  xport Jul 12 '11 at 6:02

6 Answers 6

up vote 3 down vote accepted

You are definitely right. Indefinite articles can be used only before single countable objects, therefore your assumption is right. It would be:

an apple = for any single apple
the apple = for specific single apple
the apples = for 2 or more apples

It would never be:

an apple = for 2 or more apples
an apples = for 2 or more apples

Your assumption is right and would create an unambiguous statement.

Single is there to put the emphasis on the fact that you are requesting a single object, not more. Imagine the following:

Daughter: I don't get it. When I bake the pie, it's never as good as when you do it.
Mother: Try adding an apple.

Even though in the above conversation the mother grammatically tells her daughter to add one apple, the apple may easily by understood as "a fruit", not "an object", and then the daughter may not know how many apples is she supposed to add and ultimately, she may add more than one.

If the mother said, try adding a single apple, it would be understood as "not more than 1 apple".

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"Single" is just added for emphasis I think.
For example:

John didn't even give me one single dollar.

If the speaker had said "one dollar", it wouldn't have been as "strong" as when there was "single".

It's true the "a" and the "an" specify that the subject is singular, but "single" is for emphasis.

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There is a tag on EL&U called 'single word requests'. This is not the same as *'word-requests'; it is asking specifically for one-word terms rather than phrases. Mathematically the two are equivalent, but as a matter of language they are different (it may be simpler to regard it as a matter of emphasis).

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There are some situations with important differences. It is more than just an issue of significance, but one of clarity. The indefinite articles don't always mean "exactly one", but could instead mean "at least one".

For example, if I ask the question:

Is there an apple in the box?

You can answer "Yes" if there is one or more apples in the box. Now suppose instead I ask:

Is there a single apple in the box?

You can answer "Yes" if there is one apple in the box, but normally you'd answer "No, there's more than one" if there is more than one apple.

Rimmer's last example also points out the difference. If I say:

Put an apple in the pie.

A reasonable listener could interpret that to be one, or more than one apple. Whereas:

Put a single apple in the pie.

Is making it explicit that only one apple should be put in the pie.

Now be careful about situations where single seems to be equivalent to the indefinite articles. This happens when there are none of the objects and somebody would like to stress that point. For example, in the rhetorical question:

Don't we have a single apple here?

This doesn't mean the person is desiring just one apple, but more that they are appalled that not even one apple is available.

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Generally you would be correct (although note that single has several closely related definitions, such as "unmarried," making it difficult to give a hard and fast rule).

The word single is often used for emphasis to draw attention to the solitary quality of the subject:

I can't think of a single thing.

A single doughnut was left in the box.

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That is usually the case, but don't treat it as a rule, because it's not.

Unless they are being paid to write, people can use words the way they want to, and don't have to follow your, or anyone else's, personal preferences.

If I had a single penny for every rule that someone had invented for the English language, I'd never have to work again.

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You're overstating your case. Sure, you can write what you want; you can write 'black' where everyone else would write 'white'. But if you want to be understood, you have to follow certain rules, like them or not. –  TimLymington Jul 12 '11 at 14:05
    
I don't think it's at all overstated for cases like this, where there are multiple valid options with no chance of being misunderstood. It's too easy to see one's personal preferences as rules, but if there weren't other valid options, there couldn't be preferences, and someone with a personal preference is not the right person to judge which of the valid options is "correct". But if you're being paid to write, the guy with the purse strings has the right to set his preferences above yours. –  Mark Wallace Jul 12 '11 at 16:28

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