Here's my quandary: Is the following sentence acceptable?

He waited to get an apple, orange or pear.

Or would it need to read as the following?

He waited to get an apple, an orange or a pear.

The second is obviously correct, but I am curious if the first example is actually incorrect — given it just sounds cumbersome.

  • Hi Chase, welcome to ELU. As Henry & John's answers indicate, your first version is fine. I won't bother adding another "answer", but I think the key to this one is to see "a/an" as just two phonological variants of a single syntactic unit, "the indefinite article". The audible/orthographic form manifested varies according to context (i.e. - whether the word following starts with a vowel or not), but in contexts where it doesn't actually have to appear, it doesn't matter what form it might have taken. – FumbleFingers Feb 20 '12 at 1:29
  • The 'quandary' is more imagined than real. The set rule for the indefinite article leaves no room for ambiguity. – Kris Feb 20 '12 at 7:12

The first as fine as "He waited to get an apple, orange or ice-cream", which I find unobjectionable.

The a/an is just a matter of the whether the next syllable starts with a vowel sound, but otherwise they are equivalent: "an apple" compared with "a big apple".


The farther away one gets from a chunk of language that has some agreement to come from a later part of an utterance, the less likely one is to recall what that agreement is supposed to be, and the less likely one is to notice if it's not present. That's what happens with all kinds of agreement disparities, like certain tag questions. For instance,

  • Your family is still in Ohio, aren't they?
  • No one can see us here, can they?
  • Anybody can do that, can't they?

Basically, we only parse as much as we need to, and the memory of earlier parses gets wiped by the parsing of later parts. Since most of English agreement phenomena contribute nothing to meaning, they're dispensible.

  • But this is nothing to do with (morphological) agreement - the "agreement" in question is purely phonological, and in any case the user is actually asking about whether the article can be omitted with a complex NP. – Colin Fine Feb 20 '12 at 0:37
  • 3
    @ColinFine: I believe John's point is that people tend to forget about agreement soon after they are done with (here) the first argument of the list, or (generally) after a few words of separation. – prash Feb 20 '12 at 1:15
  • There's nothing incorrect/ irrelevant in the answer for a down vote. – Kris Feb 20 '12 at 7:10
  • I didn't downvote it, but I don't think it is relevant. Insofar as the question is about something like agreement (not very far, in my opinion) the "agreement" in question is a purely local phonological process, and separated elements are quite irrelevant. – Colin Fine Feb 21 '12 at 0:45

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