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I have a question about the following construction and which instance is correct.

  • Selecting an appropriate study topic(s).
  • Selecting appropriate study topic(s).

When it is both singular and plural due to the parenthesized optional part, should I use the an because of thinking of what follows as being the singular (that is, study topic)?

Or should I omit the an because of thinking of what of what follows as being in the plural (that is, study topics)?

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2  
An is singular. No an is plural. –  John Lawler Dec 10 '12 at 21:56
    
Are you asking whether the singular or plural should be used or whether or not to use the article when using (s)? –  Kelly Tessena Keck Dec 10 '12 at 22:08
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There is no natural answer, since this construction ("topic(s)") is not part of any variety of spoken English. –  Colin Fine Dec 10 '12 at 22:09
    
And there is no logical answer, since you're trying to match a singular or a plural (article or no article) premodifier construction with a noun both singular and plural. Perhaps someone has tried to come up with an arbitrary rule (and perhaps somebody else came up with the alternative rule). Both of your alternatives can be clearly understood; if you want something perhaps less contentious, try Selecting one or more appropriate study topics. But the verb agreement required by the one or more construction has been quite warmly debated too. –  Edwin Ashworth Dec 10 '12 at 23:13
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This question appears to be a duplicate of: english.stackexchange.com/questions/11380/… That URL states either of the two usages is acceptable. –  A B Dec 11 '12 at 18:08
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4 Answers

In most cases, I think either the singular or the plural will work fine. Why clutter it up with both or with (s)? Using the plural form "Selecting appropriate topics" doesn't preclude the possibility of finding only one appropriate topic--or even none.

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The second one is correct because the default manner of "appropriate study topic(s)" is singular one.

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"appropriate study topic(s)" is both singular and plural as seen by the "s" mentioned in brackets and hence the implied confusion with respect to the correct answer. –  Mohit Dec 11 '12 at 6:30
    
When the plural or singular would not be specified, we use simple manner of word, with nothing included. –  omid saba Dec 11 '12 at 7:11
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The comments on the question explain why this answer is wrong. –  Matt Эллен Dec 11 '12 at 8:41
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According to The Chicago manual of style,

A term ending in “(s)” is both plural and singular. If you must use such a device (and it can be a useful shorthand), you have to be prepared to adjust the surrounding context as necessary: for example, “the award(s) is (are) accounted for.” A parenthetical plural verb must correspond to the parenthetical ending. But that’s an awkward example. In general, avoid such shorthand unless it can be used simply and effectively ...

In other words, the use of this shorthand might be useful in examples such as,

  • The identification number(s) of the prisoner(s) must be logged upon arrival.
  • The identification number(s) of the prisoner(s) must be logged upon his (their) arrival.

However, in other cases such as the OP's, it can be ambiguous and confusing as there's no consistent way to maintain singularity or plurality thanks to the presence of the determiner, an. In such instances, it is best to reword the sentence to something along the lines of,

  • Selecting one or more appropriate study topics.
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I agree that it is an awkward way of dealing with the problem. It would have been preferable to have had something like Selecting an appropriate study topic or topics. As it is, it’s a matter of choosing between two evils, but the second seems preferable. An followed by a possible plural in the first looks odd, but dropping the article allows the reader two interpretations. One is Selecting appropriate study topics. The other is Selecting appropriate study topic, which can be read as an abbreviated form.

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