I am often confused about the use of articles before abstract nouns. Are the following three sentences all grammatically correct? If so, what differences are there, if any, in their meaning or nuance?

(1) Obama chose the middle ground, ordering the reduction of U.S. troops to 50,000 by August 2010.

(2) Obama chose the middle ground, ordering a reduction of U.S. troops to 50,000 by August 2010.

(3) Obama chose the middle ground, ordering reduction of U.S. troops to 50,000 by August 2010.

Please assume that this reduction of troops has not been mentioned before this sentence, thus "the reduction" in (1) does not refer to something already mentioned.

  • 1
    Great question. I'm a native speaker, and I can tell you that (1) and (2) are both fine, and mean the same thing, but (3) doesn't sound right. However, I have no idea why. – Peter Shor Feb 2 '13 at 13:49
  • Thank you, Peter. "(3) doesn't sound right" is apparently the sense we non-native speakers don't have. – Fairdinkum Feb 2 '13 at 14:05

I'm going to answer this because I think both answers are partially wrong.

The sticking point is example 3, which omits the article.

I submit that this is not wrong (and certainly not "just plain wrong"). The omission of an article there is an example of ellipsis:

ellipsis noun
the omission from speech or writing of a word or words that are superfluous or able to be understood from contextual clues.

There are many examples of articles being omitted without confusion.

The president ordered cessation of hostilities.

The Selective Service System mandated registration of all draft-eligible citizens by 2014.

In these examples an article could be used ("a cessation", "the registration") but is simply not required.

  • Thanks a lot, Robusto. This explains much! I occasionally see or hear sentences using "zero article plus a singular abstract noun" where the use of "a" or "the" seems appropriate and have become really confused. Your answer is a great help! – Fairdinkum Feb 2 '13 at 15:32
  • In your "cessation" and "registration" examples, the omission sounds fine, and I agree that it is probably best characterised as ellipsis. The question is, in which situations is this ellipsis acceptable? Ellipsis like this evokes head-line language, or a cursory style. If the sentence contains elements that are the opposite of such a style, ellipsis is either judged incongruous or not recognised as such. In the original "reduction" example, there may be some elements that seem to clash with the required cursory style; I, for one, find the ellipsis less palatable there than in your examples. – Cerberus Feb 2 '13 at 15:49
  • @Cerberus: Like anything else in language, you have to know when to use it and when not to. – Robusto Feb 2 '13 at 16:04
  • @Robusto: And in most cases we know when, but not why. – Cerberus Feb 2 '13 at 16:10
  • @Cerberus: There are two examples of the usage of "lack of" in Macmillan Dictionary (online): "The game was canceled because of lack of interest." and "Most of his problems stem from a lack of confidence." Is the first one explained as a case of ellipsis in your view? And if so, is it an ellipsis of "a" or "the"? – Fairdinkum Feb 3 '13 at 5:04

Sentence one is perfectly grammatical and idiomatic American English.

Sentence 2 sounds a bit better to me stated as "...ordering a reduction in U.S. troops to 50,000...", but I don't see anything "wrong" with it. My stylistic bias may be idiosyncratic, but I wouldn't bother editing that sentence for a newspaper article.

Sentence 3 requires either "a reduction" or "the reduction": singular abstract nouns usually require articles or other determiners, and this one is no exception. I would edit in an article here.

  • Thank you, Bill. So do you think the following sentence is incorrect? "Climate change mitigation, through reduction of greenhouse gas concentrations, is the primary aim for governments and communities." – Fairdinkum Feb 2 '13 at 14:19

(2) is most correct. (1) is okay but a little awkward.

To me, the president talking about a reduction that will happen in the future seems unspecific enough to warrant the indefinite article 'a/an' If we were talking about a troop decrease that had already occurred, then the definite article 'the' would be more applicable:

"The reduction in troops that Obama ordered finally ended the war."

(3) is just plain wrong because it omits the article altogether.

This sentence could be cleaned up even more by tweaking (2) to be:

Obama chose the middle ground, ordering a reduction in U.S. troops to 50,000 by August 2010.

  • Can you explain why 3rd is wrong? It sounds right to me and I am obviously wrong – Dude Feb 2 '13 at 14:04
  • Thank you, mattacular. Do you have any idea why (3) is wrong? I just found the following sentence, which further confuses me. "Climate change mitigation, through reduction of greenhouse gas concentrations, is the primary aim for governments and communities." – Fairdinkum Feb 2 '13 at 14:07
  • Because it is missing an article before the noun 'reduction.' Same reason this sentence would be wrong: I want sandwich. Add the article and it is golden: I want a sandwich. So the meat of this question is: 'which article is right for modifying "reduction" in this sentence?' English only has 2 articles - the and a/an - but you need to use one of them! – mattacular Feb 2 '13 at 14:07
  • I added some more to my original answer for clarity! – mattacular Feb 2 '13 at 14:10
  • "Correct" is really very much like "pregnant": it really isn't gradable except when you say "almost correct" or "mostly correct". If it doesn't get full marks, then it's less than correct. If my 18th birthday is tomorrow, then today I'm still legally a minor and not an adult, a "pre-man" and not a "man" (just a "male child"). – user21497 Feb 2 '13 at 14:18

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