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Is it valid to use 'a' to describe two nouns?

For example: "I am going to town to get a burger and chips" or "they do a nice burger and chips"

The concern I have is I am not sure if it is valid to consider "burger and chips" as a single noun phrase.

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    What is your concern? We don't do yes-no proofreading questions here, so you have to explain the point of grammar or usage that you wish to understand, preferably presenting your research and theories. We can't play spot-the-error or guess-your-problem. It's too open-ended. – tchrist Dec 5 '17 at 14:30
  • the article a does not "describe" two nouns. Indeed, burger is preceded by the indefinite singular article a, but chips is plural, and is, correctly, preceded by the indefinite plural article, which is the zero particle. – oerkelens Dec 5 '17 at 14:34
  • It's arguable that "burger and chips" could be considered a single noun phrase. – DJClayworth Dec 5 '17 at 14:38
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    @tchrist I think this is clear and specific. Is it grammatically correct to use the indefinite article before a pair of nouns joined by "and"? That is the point of grammar usage that he wishes to understand. – DJClayworth Dec 5 '17 at 14:40
  • @DJClayworth We have no end of duplicate questions related to conjunction reduction if that's what they're asking. You can't tell. – tchrist Dec 5 '17 at 14:42
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TLDR: Yes, in general it's perfectly fine to use an indefinite article before a group of nouns.

But why? And what exactly does it mean? That's a great question. There are two ways to parse such a construct.

One that is suggested is that the indefinite article applies only to the first noun. In that case the interpretation of "I am going to town to get a burger and chips" would be that you are going to get two things: 1) a burger and 2) chips. However in the second case that interpretation for "They do a nice burger and chips" would have to mean that they do 1) a nice burger and 2) chips. That's almost certainly not what is meant in this case. The chips are meant to be nice as well.

What is probably meant in this case is that "burger and chips" is a noun phrase. The noun phrase can take an indefinite - or indeed definite - article. For example "I had the chicken sandwich, you had the burger and chips".

There is ambiguity here. "Nice burger and chips" could mean that only the burger was nice. Context usually gives the meaning. If the pair of nouns naturally belong together then they are likely to be a noun phrase. If not then they are taken separately. "I had a nice cheesecake and salad" probably means that only the cheesecake was nice. If you meant this in the original case, saying "I had a nice burger and some chips" would make it clear.

In any case there is nothing ungrammatical about the usage. It's just one of those cases where the meaning is technically ambiguous and determined by context and usage.

NOTE: For our North American friends "Burger and chips" in British English is what you would call "burger and fries", and they do belong together in a noun phrase.

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    Right. And people will vary, one from another -- and even the same person at different times -- in how they parse a burger and chips. Some will hear [a [burger and chips]], and others will hear [[a burger] and [chips]]. Both parses make sense, and both are available to speakers and hearers. It is ambiguous, but the ambiguity doesn't amount to any perceivable difference in meaning, just context. That's typical of normal speech; there's lots of ambiguity, but it doesn't matter for the most part if the speaker is careful. – John Lawler Dec 5 '17 at 15:48
  • I had a nice cheesecake and salad is slightly odd. Did you eat the entire cake? Or are we meaning a slice? In any event, I can't see nice not applying to it all. I had a nice cheesecake and so-so salad. Otherwise, the idea is taken a whole set of items eaten, usually. – Lambie Dec 5 '17 at 16:47
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    Yet oddly your North American friends don't usually order a "burger and fries" (or chips, for that matter) as a single noun-phrase, the way our British pals would bespeak the "fishandchips" at, say, J&C Chippy in Caernarfon - as if the three words were one. @Lambie might order the "soup and salad" combination as a single noun phrase at Ms. Flo's Diner, but as pointed out, not the cheesecake and salad. Just go with what's on the menu... – Rob_Ster Dec 5 '17 at 17:33
  • @Rob_Ster No, that's not true. Whaddya have for dinner? Answer: A burger and fries. or: What would you like to order? Answer: A burger and fries, please. But, oeuf corse, one then gets into the details.... – Lambie Dec 5 '17 at 17:34
  • The fries are usually implicitly included if you don't have to look up to read the menu, unless of course you pay an upcharge for rings... ;-) – Rob_Ster Dec 5 '17 at 17:40

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