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I was watching an American sitcom where this exchange took place (between a customer who wants to buy a pair of shoes and a storekeeper, let's assume) :

shopkeeper: Okay. Um, how about these? [Holds out a pair of shoes]
customer: That's really a day shoe. [...] Could we see something in a slimmer heel?
shopkeeper: [Forages around] Okay, I have nothing in an evening shoe in the burgundy. I can show you something in a silver that may work.
customer: No, it really should be burgundy.

(adapted)

I have questions about the phrases in bold. I think none of them is fine, and they should be fixed as below:

  • something in a slimmer heel --> something with a slimmer heel
  • I have nothing in an evening shoe in the burgundy --> I have no evening shoes in burgundy
  • something in a silver --> something in silver

For one thing, you should use no article to express the color of something, as stated here (in the 18th definitoin of 'in'), in Longman's Dictionary.

After all, I'm not sure. Maybe it's regional usage. So please correct me if I'm wrong.

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  • Can you tell us the name of the sitcom, and the episode? More information is always better (then people can see the context, intonation and stuff like that if they want to.)
    – herisson
    Dec 5, 2015 at 19:14
  • I think it's more likely to be the sales staff than the customer who would say something like We have that shoe in a slimmer heel, and in a silver sounds a bit unlikely from either, to my ear. But there aren't really any "rules" governing this, nor do I see much mileage in trying to identify "regional" differences. It's all just a matter of opinion. Dec 5, 2015 at 19:28
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    When you ask for something in a white, the implication is that it might be available in various shades of white, say "off white", "cream", "ivory", and so on, and for the time being, you are not specifying the particular sort of white you want. But suppose the salesperson brings you something in a shade of white you don't care for, you might reasonably say, "Please bring me something in a different white," meaning a different shade of white. The "a" goes with an understood "shade" or "variety".
    – Greg Lee
    Dec 5, 2015 at 20:25
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    I can't explain where it originated, however I suspect it is sales-assistant language right round the English-speaking world. I've heard it since the 1960s in AusE, usually in association with women's clothing and accessories, but also curtains, crockery, cars, and more. I expect it's affectation employed to sound more formal, more stylish, and more polite (ie, accommodating to the customer's tastes).
    – Cargill
    Dec 5, 2015 at 20:47
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    'Something in/with a slimmer heel' are both idiomatic. 'I haven't a size 7 in the burgundy' means that there is only one burgundy style being considered. 'I have nothing in an evening shoe in the burgundy' sounds unacceptable to me. 'Something in a silver' implies that the speaker realises that there are different shades (etc) of silver. Dec 5, 2015 at 21:49

1 Answer 1

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I don't find the phrasing unusual, at least for American English. But since the question has been neither closed nor answered, allow me to synthesize the comments.


Saying in burgundy and in silver without an article indicates that the speaker has a particular conception of what colors those names represent. But color names can be vague— Wikipedia says all of these are shades of red

shades of red

— and thus red is inadequate to describe fashion goods in a consumer society. It's one of the reasons why industry has developed standardized color systems like Pantone, TruMatch, and RAL.

On the flip side, specific color names can also confound because they are chosen for marketing or artistic purposes and not for accuracy or clarity. At this writing, J.Crew will sell you a shirt in river valley, Vineyard Vines one in summer evening, and Zara in one nude— all rather ambiguous (or, perhaps Zara needs to take a lesson from Crayola from half a century ago). Thus, it is natural for an experienced consumer to ask whether something is available in a silver, indicating an understanding that there are many possible tones, hues, tints, or shades that could be called silver. The shoe might even be available in more than one silver, perhaps wintry stone on one hand and city platinum on the other.

In the burgundy in contrast suggests that there is a reference burgundy understood by both the shopper and the clerk, perhaps one seen on display, or known to be offered by this particular manufacturer. Perhaps burgundy is used for a narrower range of options than silver is. But then, nothing should be more unambiguous than white, yet all kinds of whites are offered.

I read the difference between asking for something in instead of with a desired slimmer heel as a very slight one: asking whether the shoe is available in an alternative form or expression that contains the feature, as opposed to whether a single instance of the shoe can have that particular feature. I don't think most people would perceive the nuance, but the phrasing is unremarkable in a culture where product trim levels are very familiar, and you're accustomed to asking if something is available in a certain style, size, or other option set.

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  • Spot-on. Thanks. The indefinite article before 'slimmer' ('in a slimmer heel') would then reflect the fact that there are different styles of slim heel shoes, for example spike heel style or stiletto heel style.
    – Færd
    Dec 7, 2015 at 21:40

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