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I'm writing a code challenge, and in the challenge description wrote:

It can be a function, or full program.

This slipped by me for almost a day now, but now that I reread it, I'm wondering if the wording is wonky. It sounds like there should be a "a" before "full":

It can be a function, or a full program.

This might just be so it mirrors "a function", but it sounds weird if you drop the "a" before "function".

Which is considered more correct?

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  • RichF's answer might be technically correct, that's outside my expertise. Also, you don't want the comma. Without the comma, the "or" connects two singular, countable things, so I read it like "a (function or full program)". I don't know if "full" changes anything. Without it, I would write "a function or program", To me, added the "a" before "program" or "full program" actually sounds clunkier and unnecessary.
    – fixer1234
    Commented Feb 10, 2017 at 22:37

1 Answer 1

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Programs are countable, just like functions. Thus its need for an article is the same. Contrast with, It can be a function or water. The only change I would make to your second example is to eliminate the comma. Use:

It can be a function or a full program.

English, especially spoken English, is sometimes loose. My ear doesn't really mind, "It can be a function or full program." That is probably why you wrote it in the first place and lived with it until now. But technically the scope of a ends with function; it does not silently clone itself after the or. What if instead of "full program", you said "executable program"? Surely the a could not both clone itself and grow an n.

(added) It occurs to me in lists it can be okay to drop repeated indefinite articles. I bought a mechanical pencil, slide rule, protractor, and a Mr. Goodbar." Here the a does sort of clone itself up until the "and". You can't really get away with not including it at the end, though. Also, it would not be wrong to include the article before each item. We must have voted way back when to make it optional.

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    It's not a matter of cloning, but rather of governance. Some call this construction a form of zeugma, in which one word applies grammatically to two words when it has a lexical relationship with only one. I can say, "He has come and gone" instead of "He has come and has gone" because the auxiliary has is understood to apply to both verbs although it's proximate to only the first. The distinction between a and an is strictly phonological and doesn't affect the grammar.
    – deadrat
    Commented Feb 10, 2017 at 22:31
  • @deadrat Please read my final paragraph, which I was adding while you commented. I accept your points, but I don't know that zeugma (new word for today!) will allow an article to govern past a conjunction. My list example seems to mandate the repetition of the article after "and".
    – RichF
    Commented Feb 10, 2017 at 22:46
  • Your list example is inapt because of the proper name at the end. The article is required to prevent the disapproval of my announcement that I ate Mr. Goodbar. No one but those unfamiliar with the candy would blink at I ate a Mr Goodbar. I bought a Mr Goodbar, mechanical pencil, slide rule, and protractor sounds OK to me, except I don't know where anyone would buy a slide rule these days.
    – deadrat
    Commented Feb 11, 2017 at 2:36
  • I don't have the patience (or perhaps it's the strength of character) to find the rules governing the repeated article. You have to consider set phrases, which don't repeat the article but which are often considered a unit (a ball and chain). Some that aren't unitary repeat (a lick and a promise); some don't (a hop, skip, and jump). For phrases not set both styles obtain. The google finds 134K hits for an honor and pleasure; 238K, for an honor and a pleasure. The sentence It was a long day and longer night seems fine to me with a dual article.
    – deadrat
    Commented Feb 11, 2017 at 2:46
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    @deadrat ... let's just say when I needed school supplies, slide rules were groovy. My list was inept. Moving Mr. Goodbar to first and protractor to last sounds okay without a final a. My original thought was to end with Snickers but decided it was a bad choice because of the final s, which seemed to add another complication. Then I went to candy bar (which I feel still greatly benefits from the a). At the last minute I switched to Mr. Goodbar because it fit with the slide rule era. // Perhaps repeated articles are never wrong (except in set expressions) but often unnecessary.
    – RichF
    Commented Feb 11, 2017 at 4:55

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