I know you can say things like "a 1/4 inch hole" and similar, where the article belongs to the noun and not to the quarter. A colleague of mine is about to publish something like "a 1/4 of the people voted for...". I'm not a native speaker, but my feeling is that an article is built into "1/4", and that you could simply write "1/4 of the people voted for...". Am I correct? I googled and searched on here but could not find any rules about this.

Also supporting my approach is that if you read "1/4" out as "one fourth" rather than "[a] quarter", you'd get "a one fourth" when including the article which obviously doesn't sound good.

On the other hand, if you need a definite article, you'd have to say "The 1/4 that voted for...", which might support the inclusion of the indefinite article in the other case.

EDIT: I should have mentioned that using "1/4" in this case was for stylistic reasons, for use on an infographic, but I would think that some grammar rules would still have to be observed.

EDIT 2: I looked up the actual example now, and it was "In a 1/4 of countries..." which hardly makes it any better, but at least the article can now be scrapped without beginning the sentence with a numeral.

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    "a 1/4 of the people voted for..." is terrible usage. Tell your friend to write out "a quarter of the people voted for..." and save him from further embarrassment. – Mark Hubbard Mar 17 '16 at 15:00
  • FWIW, units really don't have anything to do with the question, and in fact there are units in the suggested phrase (the unit is "people"). Here is a different example: Use a drill to increase the diameter of that hole by a 1/4 inch. Here we have what everyone can agree are certainly units, but the problem in the question still exists. In the question, the "a" article is actually referring to the hole, not to the fraction. – The111 Mar 17 '16 at 22:37

Usually in formal writing, it's safest to actually write out the word you're using.

Any of the following are correct.

"a quarter of the people voted for..."
"one fourth of the people voted for..."
"a fourth of the people voted for..."

In your other example though "a 1/4 inch hole" could be correctly written as "a one-quarter inch hole". In this case "one-quarter" is an adjective describing a hole where the article belongs to your noun. However, if it's completely unavoidable you should presume people will read it as "one quarter" or "one fourth" rather than "quarter" or "fourth" and leave off the article.

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  • Thanks, yes that all sounds much better to me. However, in this case, which I should have mentioned from the beginning, the use of "1/4" was for stylistic reasons, and avoiding it altogether is not an option. But maybe using "1/4" in text like this is just a bad idea and there is no good grammatical solution? – Peter Herdenborg Mar 17 '16 at 15:16
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    Yes grammatically "1/4" should be avoided in this case. However, if it's completely unavoidable you should presume people will read it as "one quarter" or "one fourth" rather than "quarter" or "fourth" and leave off the article. – InternetHobo Mar 17 '16 at 15:29
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    +1 And 1/4 is actually one fourth or one quarter rather than a fourth or a quarter. The use of a quarter is a mental translation to an equivalent. – bib Mar 17 '16 at 15:31
  • @InternetHobo I feel that answers my question very well. If you include it in the answer I'm happy to accept it. – Peter Herdenborg Mar 17 '16 at 16:05
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    I would also write it as "a 1/4-inch hole", or "a one-quarter-inch hole" respectively because "1/4-inch"/"one-quarter-inch" are compound modifiers. This also helps to show that "a" can't modify "1/4", "one", or even "one-quarter". – Monty Harder Mar 17 '16 at 20:34

In general English writing, you'd write out the "quarter," as you have already observed. However, there exist many technical uses in which general English writing style is inappropriate, as for example in plans prepared by architects.

And now you have to be careful, because architects are smart people who know that they transgress general English writing style, and who do not wish to appear ignorant for doing it. Therefore, architects have their developed their own, idiosyncratic conventions which suit architectural plans, and architects are quite sensitive to violations of these conventions. Architects ward off charges of ignorance by being idiosyncratic together, in a very specific way, as a profession.

So, you may be in trouble here. What a headache for you!

To write, "A 1/4 of the people voted for ...," is exceptionally awkward, but one is not to start a sentence with a numeral, so what can you do?

I always hate advice which tells you to avoid the problem by rephrasing, but in this case, rephrasing may be the best you can do.

However, if you will not rephrase, you may still have at least one way out. Can you make your "1/4" line up visually with other fractions, maybe in a bulleted list, somewhat as follows?

On election day,

  • 1/4 voted for Johnson and only
  • 1/5 for Pfufnik; but
  • 1/3 chose Smith, who won.

Here, you are thinking like an accountant, taking advantage of the fact that most typefaces present all Arabic digits with identical widths. You still have a problem if this occurs, though:

On election day,

  • 1/  4 voted for Johnson and only
  • 1/10 for Pfufnik; but
  • 1/  3 chose Smith, who won.

Good luck.

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    Thanks for the interesting insight and the extra suggestions, which however would be hard to apply in this case I'm afraid. I would have voted for Pfufnik :) – Peter Herdenborg Mar 17 '16 at 16:04

A and an represent the number 1 in speaking and writing as in- a girl, a boy, a pen, an orange, etc. So using them with 1/4 would be repeating the 1 used in the number, which is unnecessary. You can use it when you say a quarter as answered above.

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