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Now I'm reading Orwell's 1984 and can't understand why there's no article before "boiled cabbage" in the sentence:

"The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats."

Why not "The hallway smelt of a boiled cabbage and old rag mats"?

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This is a really good question. I think any of these would be grammatical and convey the same rank smell:

  • The hallway smelt of boiled cabbages and old rag mats.
  • The hallway smelt of a boiled cabbage and an old rag mat.

That last one, though, reads a little awkward to me, because I don't think we are talking about one tenant who boiled one cabbage for dinner. Rather, several tenants have been boiling many cabbages over a long period of time, and now the whole hallway smells like cabbage.

I think an even tougher question to answer is why "cabbage" and not "cabbages".

When talking about the aroma of a food, we can use the singular or a plural, because the scent of, say, one banana is roughly the same as that of fifty bananas.

So I could say:

This room smells like banana

or:

This room smells like bananas

and neither statement is more correct or grammatical than the other.

I think some foods sound more natural when using the singular ("This room smells like coconut," e.g.) while others sound more natural when using a plural form ("This room smells like apples"). In any event, I think Orwell could have used cabbages or cabbage and the neither the correctness nor the meaning would have changed.

  • boiled cabbage and old rag mats is not coherent. Why not just keep it consistent, like boiled cabbages and old rag mats or (a) boiled cabbage and a old rag mat? – dan Jan 26 '18 at 3:35
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    @dan - Oh, but it is consistent, because cabbage can be treated as a mass noun, much like rice or beer. – J.R. Jan 26 '18 at 15:34
  • J.R., thank you. I accepted Jay's answer at first, but your answer made me think differently. Cabbage is a singular countable noun and have to be preceded by an indefinite article, but in our context it looses its countability and become more qualitative than quantitative. Please, correct me if I'm wrong. – Alwind Jan 26 '18 at 18:12
  • @Alwind - You're not wrong; you've got it. – J.R. Jan 26 '18 at 21:09
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Here he is using "cabbage" as a collective noun. That is, cabbage in general and not one particular cabbage.

If someone was planning to invite you for dinner, they might ask, "Do you like cabbage?", meaning, do you like cabbage in general. But if you go to the dinner and they serve you cabbage, they might ask, "Did you like the cabbage?", that is, did you like this particular cabbage. You might later tell someone, "Usually I like cabbage, but the cabbage Sally served last night was awful." That is, I like cabbage in general, but "the cabbage", this particular cabbage, I didn't like. (Hopefully you don't say that to Sally, but whatever.)

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