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A woman's mind

Does the indefinite article here refer to the noun 'woman' or 'mind'?

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    It refers to woman. Why? Because even if the second noun were plural, like arms, you could still say "a woman's arms". Or if it were non-count, like flour, you could say "a woman's flour".
    – stangdon
    Sep 28 '16 at 12:09
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    Compare with "a beautiful mind" - here beautiful is an adjective, so the indefinite article refers to mind. In "a beauty's mind", the indefinite article would refer to beauty. Sep 28 '16 at 12:13
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    @stangdon What about a children's song? What about a women's movement? This is a deeper question than it first appeared (or my mind is shallower than it first appeared.) Sep 28 '16 at 22:09
  • @P.E.Dant - Very perceptive! You're quite right. Apparently it can refer to either one, and you may just have to tell from context. This has turned out to be a surprisingly tricky question.
    – stangdon
    Sep 28 '16 at 22:57
  • @stangdon The question is +5 and the best we have so far is "Maybe because "woman" needs an article itself." There must be an underlying principle here somewhere. Why don't you have a go? If not, I will. Then StoneyB or F⚡︎F will apply the coup de grace with a fifty-word explanation that makes perfect and obvious sense but which neither of us thought of. Sep 29 '16 at 0:51
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In general, I think when a noun is used as an adjective, like here, additional adjectives modify the word that they come before.

For example, "a black woman's shirt". We probably mean that the woman is black, not that the shirt is black. If we meant that the shirt was black, we would say "a woman's black shirt".

You can also put commas between modifiers to indicate that they all apply to the final noun. "A black, woman's shirt" means that the shirt is black and it belongs to or is for a woman. But I've never seen this done with an article. Nobody write "a, woman's foot". Maybe because "woman" needs an article itself.

In any case, this isn't an absolute rule. When it's obvious from context what noun an adjective is modifying, you can deviate. Like if I read, "an orange woman's shirt", I would assume this means that the shirt is orange and not that the woman is orange.

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A woman's mind is an indefinite noun phrase. The article does not refer to either woman or mind but to woman's mind.

Example: A woman's mind is sharp, a man's mind is dull.

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