I have always thought fashion is countable when used to signify a particular manner (e.g., I will get that done in a timely fashion), but I just encountered these sentences in the Oxford Dictionaries (ODE):
The second entry linked above abounds in example sentences with fashion used countably:
- Over the years I've collected these anthologies in a rather piecemeal fashion.
- And so I think, overall, it is progressing in an orderly fashion.
To conclude, the noun is polysemous and could be used countably and uncountably.
Now I want to know when fashion is used countably and when it's used uncountably. What exactly is the difference, and how do native speakers determine which meaning to employ?
I found some interesting results after performing a couple of basic corpus searches in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) for the following strings:
in a|an * fashion and
in * fashion. I then picked out a couple of adjectives and made this little table†, ordered by the frequency of the results for the first search string.
╔════════════════╦════════════════════╦═══════════════╗ ║ adjective (__) ║ in a/an __ fashion ║ in __ fashion ║ ╠════════════════╬════════════════════╬═══════════════╣ ║ timely ║ 219 ║ 15 ║ ║ similar ║ 211 ║ 119 ║ ║ orderly ║ 112 ║ 15 ║ ║ bipartisan ║ 58 ║ 2 ║ ║ linear ║ 47 ║ 6 ║ ║ coordinated ║ 27 ║ 2 ║ ║ piecemeal ║ 20 ║ 14 ║ ║ systematic ║ 18 ║ 1 ║ ║ organized ║ 17 ║ 4 ║ ║ dramatic ║ 11 ║ 54 ║ ║ typical ║ 8 ║ 38 ║ ║ exemplary ║ 7 ║ 8 ║ ║ spectacular ║ 5 ║ 45 ║ ║ grand ║ 2 ║ 13 ║ ║ impressive ║ 1 ║ 11 ║ ╚════════════════╩════════════════════╩═══════════════╝
The first conclusion I'm able to draw from the results above is that fashion is used countably about twice as often as uncountably. However, notice that the distribution isn't even, in that with certain adjectives (1) such as timely, orderly, coordinated, systematic, linear, and organized, countable use prevails. By contrast, with adjectives (2) such as dramatic, typical, spectacular, grand, and impressive, English-speaking people will employ fashion uncountably. There are also a couple of misfits (3) such as similar, piecemeal, and exemplary, with which there isn't a clear winner.
I'm not really sure what this means, though. The results above seem to point to the fact that if we're describing something as superlative, it doesn't make much sense to imply there are different superlative ways in which something can be done, which might in turn diminish what we've just said, and that's why you describe things as having been done in Ø spectacular / impressive / grand / dramatic fashion.
Conversely, when the adjective alone implies there are different ways something could be done in that (adjective) fashion, you would put the indefinite article in front of it. Systematic, organized, and coordinated already suggest different systems, different organizations, or coordinations one might arrange things in, right? Hence in a(n) organized / systematic / coordinated fashion.
However, this theory doesn't quite explain similar because by virtue of saying something was done in a/Ø similar fashion, you imply it's possible to do something in more than one such fashion, and this accounts for the large number of results with the indefinite article; the uncountable use of fashion doesn't make much sense there.
So maybe there's some other factor, and the above might just be wrong.
The following are six random sentences taken from COCA:
- Mr. Robertson has bounced back from bad periods before -- making big gains in 1996 and 1997, for instance, after two subpar years. But even some current investors question whether he can recover this time in similar fashion.
- Although the craft would start slowly, constant acceleration would, in theory, enable it to achieve enormous speeds. Particle beams, powerful versions of the devices now being tested for ballistic missile defenses, might be used in similar fashion.
- Researchers surveyed hunter spending patterns as well as forage use by elk and deer to determine unit values for wildlife grazing land. Market values of beef were computed in similar fashion.
- Most of my full moons were spent calmly in my apartment, in a similar fashion that your dog or cat spends her Saturday at home, while you're away on vacation.
- Roberts noted when Nixon gave a speech on the energy crisis, he had her tour an energy-conserving home. In a similar fashion, when he spoke about crime, she visited a juvenile facility.
- Horizontal equity means that the tax liability should be the same for two families with the same income level. Families in similar situations should be treated in a similar fashion.
Could you articulate the difference between the usages in the first group and the second group? Do the usages in the first group of sentences suggest greater resemblance/similarity than in the second one, perhaps?
My question remains as follows:
When would you use in <adjective> fashion, and when in a/an <adjective> fashion?
By the way, if you click on the links to results from COCA (search strings), you'll be able to click on any of the specific results (e.g.,
in similar fashion), all of which you can then see in extended context.
† I further checked all of these in the iWeb corpus, which is a web-based corpus (and hence may be unreliable) 25 times the size of COCA. The numbers roughly match, however. I primarily did this because I wanted to make sure that results with seemingly statistically insignificant figures weren't deceiving – and they aren't: where the ratio is 2 to 5, you can assume that it's actually 200 to 500, or even 200 to 1000 in iWeb, or such; i.e., the basic ratios
X > Y,
X ≫ Y, and
X ≈ Y, and vice versa are preserved (e.g., the iWeb corpus gives 11471 results for in a timely fashion vs. only 371 for in timely fashion, which is the ratio of around 30 to 1, while the table above with results from COCA displays a ratio of "just" 15 to 1 – similar discrepancy is found with all the other ratios).