Which sentence is grammatically correct or preferred?

  1. Emerald is a delicate and brittle gemstone.

  2. An emerald is a delicate and brittle gemstone.

My kids and even one of their teachers have challenged me on this question!

I voted for #2 while the rest voted for #1.


Forrest (The dad)

  • 2
    I'd prefer 'Emeralds are delicate and brittle gemstones' over either. Kind of like saying "Roses are red" instead of '(A) rose is red'. – Tushar Raj May 30 '15 at 8:56
  • I would probably opt for 1., when you are referring to emerald as a raw, uncut material. I'd prefer 2. For the cut stone, or jewel. – Julie Carter May 30 '15 at 9:11

The American comedian Groucho Marx famously said, "Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read." Humor aside, no one would take this to mean one specific book or dog. Same with emeralds. Whereas gold is used as a mass noun, emerald is not. (In fact, "a gold" would be wrong, unless gold is used as an adjective.) Therefore, Sentence 1 sounds wrong. (At least to my New York ear.) Thus, "emerald" must be used as a count noun, as in Sentence 2, or the plural version given by Tushar Raj in the comment.

I will allow that it may sound different in other countries.

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  • +1 for the Marx reference, which is surprisingly apt here! – Tushar Raj May 30 '15 at 9:56

The first one makes more sense, but I agree with Tushar Raj that the sentence is best recast.

In your examples, the first "emerald" names a type of stone and is used like "gold" would be in "Gold is a precious and valuable metal." "An emerald" would talk about one stone and make no sense here because you are clearly discussing emeralds as a type of stone.

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