Submitted by Giorgi on January 7, 2012

Use of article (a/the) when there are multiple modifiers

One grammar guide teaches that if two modifiers of similar kind refers to the same noun (thing or person) only the first is preceded by an article, while the noun is in the singular (The black and white dress she had on was very becoming); but if they refer to different things the noun is in the plural, with an article preceding each modifier (The black and the white dresses were very becoming). This, as I have understood it, means that, for example, the phrase a/the political, economic, and social sphere implies that the sphere is at once economic, political, and social. But how should I understand (if the above rule really governs the structure) an example where the noun is in the plural but only the first modifier is preceded by an article as it is in a sentence you can read in the CollinsCobuild dictionary--We are doing this work in the context of reforms in the economic, social and cultural spheres. The use of the plural noun means that the three spheres are considered different things by the writer, and thus, the article the would have to stand before each adjective like here-- the economic, the social, and the cultural spheres. Via the Internet, you can find a lot of examples being much like the former structure one but almost nothing resembling the latter one. Does this mean that the rule is wrong or incomplete, or I have misunderstood something?

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Good afternoon Giorgi,

REMEMBER: Just as we have probably all heard so brilliantly in the movie "Pirates of the Caribbean" - the code is more like guidelines than actual rules. - Something to keep in mind when intentionally diving head first down the rabbit hole of understanding the science of English. Of course there are prescribed writing methods and standards, and if you are subject to any of them, you would do well to not falter. But, enough preface.
ULTIMATELY: You have misunderstood the premise in the rule, or guideline, to a certain extent. In the spherical example, it is not discussing a single sphere, but the separate economic, social, and cultural spheres. In the dressed example, it is not discussing a single dress, but both black and also white ones. But of course, you knew that from each case, based upon what was written - therefore, the author conveyed the/his meaning effectively, and it was not left in question.
Both of these examples are the same, and have adequately used the articles such that you understand the meaning. Ultimately, that is the only real point of the rules and guidelines with which to write; they are meant to curb misunderstanding(s).
HOWEVER: The rule that you have described is in fact incomplete. The use of articles is meant to properly assign the describing modifier(s) to the appropriate noun (or otherwise item) in order to convey the meaning.
Should the thought ever occur to you that if you simply write: "red and white roses" - someone will believe that you have roses bespeckled with hues of red and white in a pinkish firework display of botanical delight - then you might want to use the definite article in front of both of the adjectives/modifiers. Example: "The red and the white roses were neat." Thus, you have clearly conveyed to any reader that the roses you were referencing were of the red variety and also of the white variety, exclusively.
THE POINT: In the case of the different "spheres" - You clearly understood that the spheres were at least somewhat autonomous, and that you were not meant to see the political, social, and cultural sphere as one and the same, but three separate spheres. Had you seen the different "political" "social" and "cultural" spheres as the same sphere, then you very likely would have been distracted, even if only for a brief moment in time, from what the author was ACTUALLY trying to discuss, which was the so-called "reforms" discussed in the subject of this sentence. Therefore, the meaning was conveyed adequately, and the author was able "to get on with" discussing the reforms, or their implementation(s) in the aforementioned spheres, and so on and so forth.
IN my HUMBLE opinion: It is not MORE correct to have the definite article, in general. BUT: There does exist this rule where if the subject/item/object or subjects/items/objects being discussed are separate, and you reference them in a list form, that you should use the definite article for each modifier, in order to clearly convey the separation.
FURTHERMORE: You may find that it also depends on the usage in the sentence. Is it being used in the subject, predicate, subordinate clauses, etc.? Or more importantly, it also depends (as I have somewhat belaboured above) on what the focus of the sentence, discourse, or content needs to be. You might say:
"The economic, social, and cultural spheres wherein the principles of American capitalism need considerable reformation are not too abstract for us to implement real, effective strategy, in order that all parties involved would ultimately reap the benefit."
And you might just as quickly need to say:
"The economic, the social, and the cultural spheres must be viewed without our own individual prejudices and opinions taking precedence over our full comprehension of their seemingly impossible complexities, in order to see that they are simply not as autonomous as many politicians would lead us to believe."
Did you catch the meaningful emphasis used (quite well I might add, though I say so myself) in each example?

Also, don't get me started on the indefinite article, as it does carry much of the same guideline - but it has very different implementation.

Very best regards,
Wordsmithy

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Giorgi,

Language is usually spoken and written in a manner that is less burdensome, and more importantly, does not distract the listener/reader from the crux of the message. So what we have is the use of the articles where they are needed, but omission where they are not really needed, that is, when there is no ambiguity.

The black and white dresses vs the black and the white dresses - in the second one it is needed and used.

But, if the list of adjectives is long and the context is clear, people most often will not use multiple "the"s.

The purpose of language ultimately is effective communication and that is what drives usage.

We have to free English from the French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Bantu influences.

Compare the above to writing or saying:

We have to free English from the French, the Spanish, the Russian, the Arabic and the Bantu influences.

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In "The black and the white dresses were very becoming", using multiple articles makes it clear that there are black dresses and there are white dresses, not individual dresses that are black and white (striped, spotted, etc.). In "The political, economic, and social spheres...", there are no modifiers and, therefore, no potential ambiguity; thus, one article suffices. I noticed you used the words "grammar guide", I would put the emphasis on the word "guide". That which is ambiguous isn't necessarily ungrammatical. I guess I didn't say anything that wasn't already said, but perhaps I was a bit more concise. At least for now, I don't feel the need to smith any more words.

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Thank you all for your comprehensive comments I am going to learn carefully. WORDSMITHY, your last statement only has increased my curiosity on the topic.

With the best wishes,
Giorgi

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