The following sentence is taken from Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary:

  1. Today most commutes were not suburb to city but from one suburb to another.

What interests me is the use of un-inflected 'city' and 'suburb' in this sentence. Consider the following:

  1. Today most commutes were to city/to suburb.

Does this example sound acceptable to you with un-inflected 'city' and 'suburb' and no article? If not, what is the difference between 1 and 2?

Consider a third example:

  1. Today most attacks were not fighter against tank, but between one tank and another.

3 sounds ok, doesn't it? What about:

  1. Today most attacks were against tank.
  • 1
    You seem to be looking at things from a perspective that is not clear to us. Also, "the use of un-inflected 'city'"? – Kris Mar 2 '15 at 5:35
  • 2
    What do you mean by "un-inflected"? YAAQ - yet another article question? – Blessed Geek Mar 2 '15 at 6:10
  • 'suburb' is uninflected for number in this case. It is ok to use a singular form, but an article is generally expected, e.g. Today most commutes were to THE city, isn't it? – Apollyon Mar 2 '15 at 7:52
  • @Kris This perspective I'm taking is unfamiliar to you probably because you haven't studied English consciously. For example, it is generally unacceptable to say 'He is reading book'. 'Book' has to be inflected for number, or an article is needed. – Apollyon Mar 2 '15 at 7:56

This has to do with the general structure of [uninflected noun] [preposition] [uninflected noun], a moderately common English adjective or adverb construct used to indicate the "general case"; that is, it indicates it applies for all instances of those same nouns rather than a specific set or one:

The proper way to pour tea is saucer under cup, not the reverse.

Many common idioms use this form as a general description of behavior:

The successful company was selling their product hand over fist.

She fell head over heels for the handsome movie star.

The happy couple walked hand in hand down the avenue.

When used as a leading adjectival phrase, this construct will usually have hyphens connecting the three words, for clarity:

She couldn't find the ship-to-shore radio, so she could not call for rescue.

In this concrete example, a ship-to-shore radio is a type of radio used to communicate from any ship to any shore, not from a particular ship to a specific shore.

Most military combat is no longer hand to hand.

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Number one looks fairly good(I suppose it should, being a dictionary example), but one does wonder why they use WERE with TODAY. I would have used "are".

As for #2, it does not work with uninflected "to city" or "to suburb". However, if you said FROM city TO city (or FROM suburb TO suburb) it would be fine. So the problem about inflection seems to be related to whether the uninflected item is paired or standalone. Beyond that, I don't know what to make of it.

Number 3 doesn't sound all that great, because of the weak parallelism of "against" and "between". But it's not wrong.

And in number 4: Again, stripping off one partner is what makes the article "a tank" (or the plural "tanks") necessary. And again, I can't say why.

It's a consistent pattern though. You can't say you traveled "from place" or "to place" but you can travel "from place to place".

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  • What if 3 is modified as "Most attacks were not fighter against tank, but one tank against another"? Would that sound better? – Apollyon Mar 2 '15 at 9:43
  • Yes, that would be better parallelism. – Brian Hitchcock Mar 3 '15 at 8:29

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