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Here's a fragment from Jack London's Star Rover:

Wordsworth knew. He was neither seer nor prophet, but just ordinary man like you or any man. What he knew you know, any man knows. But he most aptly stated it in his passage that begins "Not in utter nakedness, not in entire forgetfulness.

To the best of my — admittedly sketchy — knowledge of grammar, the second sentence should read neither a seer nor (a) prophet, but just an ordinary man. Even if we accept the seer and the prophet as "poetic entities" ("father and son," "robber and robbed," "man to man," or whatever), logic would still dictate that ordinary man should be preceded by an an.

It is a well-known fact that Jack London's usage wasn't always up to par; his grammar, on the other hand, was always top-notch.

Logically, the sentence is grammatically incorrect (correct me if I'm wrong: no pun intended).

Illogically, it reads smoothly: intuitively, a native speaker understands that there's nothing wrong here.

However, those to whom English is not the first language cannot be expected to be intuitive in this case and would want an explanation. Any suggestions?

  • "Man" without an article is common to mean people in general. Not an answer because I don't have time to find a proper reference now. I've read something relating to the question of whether there was a missing article in Neil Armstrong's moon landing speech which would make nonsense of the famous sentence. It explains rather clearly the change in meaning. – Chris H Oct 19 '15 at 6:18
  • "He was neither seer nor prophet, but just ordinary people, like you or any man." Stands to reason. – Ricky Oct 19 '15 at 6:35
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    @Ricky Could I have some source for this "well-known" fact that London's "usage" wasn't always up to par? – deadrat Oct 19 '15 at 7:36
  • deadrat: I distinctly remember reading an Oxford edition of - I'm not sure, it may have been "Martin Eden," in which the author of the preface whose name escapes me, but who was, I believe, a literature professor at Oxford, going on about this for a couple of pages, saying that London's shortcomings can be excused because ... blah-blah-blah. He cited one example of London's stylistic flaws, specifically the line that goes "A carnivorous animal, living on a straight meat diet, he was in full flower, at the high tide of his life, over-spilling with vigor and virility," explaining ... – Ricky Oct 19 '15 at 9:38
  • ... that carnivores and flowers didn't mix very well. Don't kill me, I'm not writing a thesis here. In my own opinion, Jack London, like many self-educated people before and after him, does occasionally try too hard to come off as sophisticated, and is a great deal more poetic when he doesn't actually make a conscious effort to be so. – Ricky Oct 19 '15 at 9:41
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Bare Coordination

This phenomenon is one that is not at all well understood, and also one which is currently the subject of much academic research. It is an example of Bare Coordination. This is when coordinated noun phrases (NPs) which we would otherwise expect to take a determiner of some description appear "bare" with no determiner or article at all. By coordinated, we mean that they appear in phrases using the coordinators and, or, but and so forth (some people call coordinators coordinating conjunctions)

Here are some more examples:

  • A black cat and a brown dog were fighting in the street. Cat and dog were equally filthy.
  • Are you man or mouse?
  • I was nursemaid, mistress and mother to those children.
  • I had pen and paper ready to make notes.
  • Mother and child were said to be recovering well.
  • He appeared to be millionaire and homeless vagabond at the same time.

Bare Co-ordination versus Bare Role NPs

Notice that these aren't bare role NP's which specify a unique role. Bare role NPs can occur freely as Predicative Complements without a determiner. The nouns in these coordinations cannot appear bare when not in a coordination:

Bare role NP

  • He was Managing Director at Boots.
  • Who's going to be Best Man?
  • We elected her treasurer.

Nouns from the Bare Coordinations

  • *He was millionaire. (ungrammatical)
  • *He used to be cat. (ungrammatical)
  • *Are you mouse? (ungrammatical)

Notice as well that bare role NP's can only function as Predicative Complements. However, bare co-ordinations can appear freely in Subject or Object function:

Bare Coordination:

  • Father and son came to see me. (Subject)
  • We punished licensee and client together for the misdemeanour. (Direct Object)

Bare Role NP

  • *Chief executive was an arse. (Subject, ungrammatical)
  • *I punched Managing Director. (Object, ungrammatical)

How to explain the example

Here we see a co-ordination of three NPs functioning as the complement of the verb BE. The co-ordinators involved are and and but. We know that we can sometimes use nouns without articles when they occur with words like and, or and but, but we do not understand a lot about this phenomenon. What we do know is that very often these noun phrases describe what type of thing some other entity is:

  • He was both sinner and saint.
  • Are you man or mongoose?
  • It was cat and dog rolled into one.
  • Judge jury and executioner were all dismissed.

This seems to be why Jack London has chosen to use bare coordination here. It gives the writing a literary flavour.

Further reading

Here's a couple of articles on bare coordination:

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I believe that the lack of article is related to "seer", "prophet" and "man" all referring to a class rather than a particular instance of that class. And so it is that I put no article in front of the word "article" in my first sentence of this answer.

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The key to the grammar here is that neither can function as a determiner, although it doesn't have to. And in fact, it can simultaneously function as a determiner and as a conjunction. Consider this Ngram: neither doctor nor is somewhat more common than neither a doctor nor. When you replace neither by not, not a doctor is much more frequent than not doctor.

Why doesn't ordinary man have an article in front of it? Presumably to make it match neither seer nor prophet.

  • I don't think that's quite correct because neither isn't in Determiner function here. More importantly it's the co-ordination that licenses the bare NP. Whether we include the marker in a correlative construction doesn't seem to affect the acceptability. Both Mother and child are said to be doing well and Mother and child are said to be doing well. The presence or absence of the marker of coordination does not seem to be the key factor. It's the coordination what done it. – Araucaria Oct 19 '15 at 16:28
  • ... So consider he was not man but monster which is ok, and which does not have a determinative such as both or either or neither in Marker function. Similarly we could have During his own lifetime he was seer and prophet and ordinary man without any correlative Marker such as neither.. – Araucaria Oct 19 '15 at 16:30
  • @Araucaria: so coordination may be part of the explanation, but I think the fact that neither is a determiner is also an important part of it. Google books finds no hits for "I am not lawyer nor <profession>" or "I am not lawyer but <profession>", and quite a few (I think around 15, not counting duplicates) for "I am neither lawyer nor <profession>". – Peter Shor Oct 19 '15 at 16:40
  • @PeterShor I absolutely agree with you. I wish "neither" was a deterniner. All the dictionaries I looked up don't define it so. That's the problem. Also, the Economist clearly used articles for both sprint and marathon. That's also understandable. One thing for sure is it is not a "bare coordination". It just doesn't hold water. – user140086 Oct 19 '15 at 16:50
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    Rathony: The Oxford Dictionaries Online give as an example "she saw herself as neither wife nor mother." Would ODO give ungrammatical examples? – Peter Shor Oct 19 '15 at 18:48

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