I've had an argue with my colleague about whether the following sentence contains any article-related issues or not:

If a contour's area is larger than 30 then that contour is alive. It is dead otherwise.

He tells me that we can't place an indefinite article "a" before the "contour's area" part because "area" in this specific context cannot be in its plural form (areas).

Is there any rule that states that we don't need to put an article before those words which don't have plural forms (whether context-related or not)?

Thanks in advance.

  • 1
    So your colleague proposes that, “If contour’s area is larger...” He is very wrong. – Jim Jul 26 '17 at 3:20
  • @Jim Exactly. Could you please provide more info related to this rule? – FrozenHeart Jul 26 '17 at 3:21
  • There is no rule. A refers to ’contour’ not area. – Jim Jul 26 '17 at 3:21
  • @Jim Well, really? I mean, the rules related to the articles and theirs omissions must exist, right? – FrozenHeart Jul 26 '17 at 3:24
  • 2
    In English, a noun can only have one determiner in front of it. A possessive counts as a determiner. So we would say a car; the car; this car; John's car; my car. But we can't say the my car or a John's car. Because countour's is a possessive, area already has a determiner. Thus, the determiner a must be associated with contour. – Peter Shor Jul 26 '17 at 3:42
up vote 1 down vote accepted

He tells me that we can't place an indefinite article "a" before the "contour's area" part because "area" in this specific context cannot be in its plural form (areas).

Your colleague is wrong in more than one way.

1. "a" does not belong to "contour's area"

Your colleague is arguing that you should parse the sentence as follows:

[a] [contour's area]

That is incorrect. The correct parsing would be:

[a contour]'s [area]

Therefore, the usage of the indefinite article relies on [contour], not [area].

2. Area can be pluralized, even in this context

His argument can easily be disabled by talking about more than one contour:

Two contours' areas.

Area can be pluralized, as an area (= the mathematical value) refers to the area of one object. If there is more than one object, there is more than one area.
There will, however, always be one combined area. But "combined area" and "area" are not freely interchangeable!


To give your colleague a little credit

It would be correct to say that one contour can only have one area. Therefore, in the context of [a contour], it is true that area can logically never be pluralized, even if it is grammatically allowed.

Logical correctness is not the same as grammatical correctness! For example, "The Earth is smaller than an orange" is grammatically correct, but objectively incorrect.

So, it would be correct to say that a single contour cannot have more than one area. But how do we know that we're talking about a single area?
Because the indefinite article "a" is being used.

The only claim that your colleague can make to being correct, inherently relies on the fact that the indefinite article is used to conclusively state that we are talking about a single contour.

In other words, his argument shoots itself in the foot.

In English, a noun can only have one determiner in front of it. A possessive counts as a determiner. So we would say

a car; the car; this car; John's car; my car.

But we can't say

*the my car; *a John's car.

Because countour's is a possessive, area already has a determiner. Thus, the determiner a must be associated with contour.

(There is an exception to this. When the possessive is inherent in something's name, then the article is associated with the whole name. For example, with the tool called "a carpenter's rule", the article applies to the whole phrase.)

  • +1 Might "compound noun" be a useful concept here? a [carpenter's rule] – Araucaria Jul 26 '17 at 21:49

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