4

From an online article:

Many drivers tool around town or take long drives with cell phone in hand, one eye on the road but their mind clearly someplace else.

Since "cell phone" is of course countable, shouldn't the sentence be:

Many drivers tool around town or take long drives with a cell phone in hand, one eye on the road but their mind clearly someplace else.

Is it a grammatical error or a special usage in the original text?

I am interested in knowing if the "with something in hand" construction warrants an exception or if it is common practice to omit the article in similar constructions.

  • 1
    I think it is an acceptable exception, but by no means a rule. – user3169 May 3 '18 at 6:43
4

Although "cell phone" is countable, the sentence sounds fine. In the expression "[with] x in hand", the article can be omitted. I think it sometimes sounds a little poetic, but there's nothing wrong with it.

Here are some examples of it in use:

‘Your regards, Edith, my dear?’ said Mrs. Skewton, pausing, pen in hand, at the postscript.
Dombey & Son by Charles Dickens, 1847

With bag in hand, Tara slipped out of the room, running up the stairs toward her bedroom.
In Her Presence: A Husband's Dirty Secret by Nancy Weaver, 2004

Or, what if someone just yells — with gun in hand — he’s a good guy?
Questions for the Good Guy with a Gun by Hersch Wilson, 2018

  • +1 Though omitting the article is wider than just "[with] x in hand". For example: "There she goes again, with fishnets on, and dreadlocks in her hair". I have no idea what rule governs it though. – AndyT May 3 '18 at 10:28
-1

Yes, it is a grammatical mistake in the original test.

According to the dictionaries*, the plural form of "cell phone" (or cellphone) is cell phones (or cellphones). When it's mentioned in its singular form it's necessary to put an article before (definite or indefinite). Therefore, the original text has a grammatical mistake.

Now, when talking about "with cell phone in hand" is not different from other sentences. It is not an exception for the singular-plural system. Google shows 39.5K results for "with cell phone in hand" and 121K for "with a cell phone in hand" 3 times more approximately for the correct one. In addition, a lot of results of these 39.5K results are in titles in which there is a reduction of using indefinite articles.

*References:

See here also - on ELU.

  • 1
    Well, "cell phone" being a count noun is actually part of the premise of my question and has been stated in the question. I am interested in knowing if the "with something in hand" construction warrants an exception or if it is common practice to omit the article in similar constructions. – Eddie Kal May 3 '18 at 0:46
  • So you have to edit your question, because your things are not there. You asked simply "Should there be an article before “cell phone”?" and you gave an example for a text that states cell phone without an article. Anyway I added the relevant information to answer your question in the comment as well. But Kindly edit your question in order to be clearer for others too. – Scarcely Ponder May 3 '18 at 1:01
  • Google's estimated # of hits is wrong though. It's actually 88 for no article & 47 for with indefinite article. It's usually pretty far off like this, so you can't use it for much. – Laurel May 3 '18 at 6:33

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