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I'd be interested in your analysis of the following sentence (from program documentation):

... dialog with an ok and cancel button... [correct]

Would be correct. However, why not:

... dialog with an ok and a cancel button... [correct]

And why not:

... dialog with an ok and cancel buttons... [incorrect]

And why not:

... dialog with an ok and a cancel buttons... [incorrect]

And why not:

... dialog with ok and cancel buttons... [correct]

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4 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Actually I would say that your first fragment, with an OK and Cancel button, is incorrect; it reads as if there is a single button that is labeled "OK and Cancel".

"With an OK and a Cancel button" correctly identified each individual button with its label. Because each button is identified separately, the use of singular is called for, even though the word "button" only appears once; this is a parallel construction in which the second occurrence of "button" is omitted.

For the same reason that "an OK and a Cancel button" is correct, the other variants "with an OK and a Cancel buttons" and "an OK and cancel buttons" are incorrect; the singular is called for, not the plural.

"with OK and Cancel buttons" is also correct because you are treating the buttons as a group, and lumping their labels together as a description of the group.

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In the correct ones, you give exact or abbreviate representations of "an ok button and a cancel button"; it is also correct to emphasize the plurality of buttons, but then a/an are not appropriate.

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One hint when trying to figure out issues such as these: draw brackets to figure out part-whole relationships between the phrases (and sub-phrases).

  1. ... dialog with an ok and cancel button... [incorrect]

  2. ... dialog with {[(an ok) and (a cancel)] button}... [correct]

  3. ... dialog with an ok and cancel buttons... [incorrect]

  4. ... dialog with an ok and cancel buttons... [incorrect]

  5. ... dialog with {[ok and cancel] buttons}... [correct]

What you have in 2. is a kind of ellipsis for "... dialog with an ok [button] and a cancel button..."

Think of it this way:

(A catholic X and a protestant X)[pastor] went into a bar...

Here, the text in the square brackets replace the Xs in the phrase in round brackets. Given that you have marked 1. as correct, you might think that the second "a" is unnecessary. Try with this now:

(A blind X and a deaf X)[pastor] went into a bar...

If the second determiner is omitted, the phrase needs to be analysed differently:

A ({blind and deaf} X)[pastor] went into a bar...

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I think the best phrase would be "a dialog with OK and cancel buttons." Using just one article in the sentence would be technically not correct as others have mentioned, and using an article for both type of button ("a dialog with an OK and a cancel button") may be grammatically correct just sounds too wordy.

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