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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 special wine stored in Odysseus's palace against his return is described in approbatory fashion as ‘aged’; and the wine that Nestor brings out in honor of Telemachos is, we are told, 11 years old. (source)
  • But in the last week he has put those wrongs right in spectacular fashion. (source)

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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).

  • @userr2684291 Absolutely. Please modify the question as you see fit. This question has earned me the "Tumbleweed" badge, and now I'd like it to get some answers. Rephrasing it might be the way to go. Btw, I know I ask a lot of nitty-gritty questions that are hard to provide accurate/simple answers to. That's why your comments are much appreciated! – Eddie Kal Jul 20 '18 at 3:39
  • That’s a fairly heavy duty (and well-presented) question. And it contains the word “polysemous” :-) Isn’t it more suited for english.stackexchange.com? – tkp Jul 21 '18 at 20:16
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Articles are omitted before singluar nouns if the noun is abstract or is a concept (e.g. a type or category), rather than a concrete thing-that-actually-exists.

Sometimes it's clear whether or not a noun falls in the "abstract/concept/type" versus "concrete/instance" category, and sometimes it's not. This point of view can be different for each speaker/writer and in many cases it's only a manner of taking a slightly different path to express a same meaning.

So one speaker/writer may say

Over the years I've collected these anthologies in a rather piecemeal fashion.

if they have a picture in their mind of the piecemeal fashion in which the pictures were collected. This often happens when people tell stories or recount experiences.

Another speaker/writer may say

Over the years I've collected these anthologies in rather piecemeal fashion.

if the type of fashion of collection, or how they are collected, is of particular importance.

Also, English has a lot of prepositional phrases that are idiomatic and essentially function as one word. In a timely fashion and in an orderly fashion probably fall in this category.


To actually answer your question:

Now I want to know when fashion is used countably and when it's used uncountably.

Countable fashion is synonymous with way or method.

I did it in such fashion.

Uncountable fashion is used to talk about the either the clothing industry, or is synonymous with what's currently popular.

Fashion these days is so boring.

The fashion of the time was for ladies to stay at home and for the men to work.

  • Thank you for your answer; especially the part before your last edit. I don't know why you decided to add it. I didn't know I couldn't add another bounty for 100 or 50 rep to award after the first one, because I was about to give you one. (The smallest amount is 200 rep and that's a bit too much for me, I think. Sorry.) – userr2684291 Jul 27 '18 at 10:46
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I can't give an academic answer but I can give my impression as a native speaker of American English. I believe this to be helpful if you are interacting with Americans because it will let you know how you might be understood in various situations.

I would consider the two constructions (with and without indefinite article) to be equivalent in meaning. To my American ears, without the indefinite article it sounds more British, or more literary, which might explain why that usage is less common in American English. It could also be understood as a more formal construction to the American ear. We often equate a British accent with formality, rightly or wrongly.

Judging from my own understanding, for most Americans the word 'fashion', used with an article as you describe, is a substitute for the word 'way', preffered because it sounds a little more educated or sophisticated.

He did it in a systematic way/fashion, or an awkward way/fashion, etc

The opposite isn't true. 'Way' can't be used as a substitute for 'fashion' in a non-countable way.

Used uncountably, as in the examples cited in the question, 'fashion' sounds too sophisticated to me for normal conversation. You would not hear it often in everyday American speech. It is apparently fairly common in writing, however.

If I can offer an uneducated observation with regard to the adjectives that are used countably more often, they are generally more concrete and rational than the ones that are used uncountably more often. In other words I think that there is less imagination involved in doing something in an orderly or timely fashion than there is in doing it in grand or dramatic fashion. This is not a conscious rule, or a verified scientific theory but just something I noticed about those words. I don't think English speakers use this as a conscious criterion for choosing one usage over the other.

  • Around 37% of the results (1474 in 3950) in COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English) are those where fashion is used uncountably with an adjective. That means in 8 such results, 3 will use fashion uncountably. Are you seriously suggesting all of them are just people trying to sound overly sophisticated? In BNC (British National Corpus) fashion is used uncountably in 44% (247 in 558) of the cases (a negligible 7% spike). I only chose COCA because it's greater in size than BNC. Please don't conflate dialects with formality. – userr2684291 Jul 22 '18 at 13:52
  • Further, this doesn't explain why with certain adjectives the noun at issue is used uncountably a lot more than countably (5 to 10 times more). That was the whole point of the chart. Is this just random, with certain misleading patterns? – userr2684291 Jul 22 '18 at 13:56
  • I said nothing about the motives of 37% of the people who use 'fashion' uncountably. Please read the answer carefully. It only talks about my impression as a lifelong native speaker of American English. In any case, I've changed my answer to make it more clear. – dwilli Jul 23 '18 at 2:10
  • Also, I didn't try give a reason for why certain adjectives are used with 'fashion' uncountably more often than others because I don't know. The question asked when to use one over the other. My answer is use it uncountably if you want to sound British or literary, but you risk sounding very high-brow. Somebody else might have a better answer, and if so we're all still waiting for it. – dwilli Jul 23 '18 at 2:11
  • Regarding formality, the point is that many Americans equate a British accent with formality. The questioner wants to know when and how to use the word 'fashion' in different ways. If they use it uncountably in speech with Americans they will sound both British and formal at the same time. I think this is helpful information. – dwilli Jul 23 '18 at 2:19
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+100

This is a rather simplistic answer to your extremely detailed question, but simply put you should use "it was done in a timely fashion" if there is more than one "fashion" or "way" that "it" could be done. Having said that, unless the possible ways were the focus of the statement or under scrutiny then frankly either way of phrasing it would pass unnoticed.

"Timely" simply means that something has been done to a deadline, or within an expected time; it doesn't really describe how something was done. For example you could reach a destination on time by going a number of different routes, so all would be considered "timely". If there is more than one "timely fashion" then of course those "fashions" are countable. But in statements like your example the real focus is on the fact something was timely, not how it was done, and so whether the possible ways are countable or not is largely irrelevant and therefore wouldn't be questioned by most readers or listeners.

You also used the example of "an orderly fashion". Again, this term is very loose. Lots of approaches could be considered to be orderly.

Example

The children filed into school in an orderly fashion.

This could mean that the children went in single file, two-by-two, quietly without running, any other way considered "orderly". There are many "fashions" and you are referring to just one, so they are countable.

But if you use a specific term to describe the way they entered it is not countable:

The children entered the school in single file.

It would be incorrect to say:

The children entered the school in a single file.

This is because "single-file" describes a single way of entering. It doesn't describe how long the line is or anything else that could allow for variation, and so there is only "one".

Your question focuses on determining how to use the word "fashion", but really you should be looking at the adjective that describes the noun as well, regardless of whether the noun used is "fashion", "manner", "way", or anything similar. If the entire noun group is non-specific so as to allow for other possibilities, then it is countable, but as stated already you may hear either used idiomatically if that aspect of the statement is not really the focus.

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    First of all, thanks for the simplistic answer. That's all I wanted (see the bounty notice). Secondly, concerning your last paragraph: that's what I did. I focused on trying to figure out which adjectives can be used, and how that affects whether the word fashion is countable or not. And I think what you said exactly matches what I said (this might be bad because, of course, as I'm more likely to agree with myself): it's the adjective itself that designates the group as intrinsically (not) having different ways of being done in that fashion, not the noun (which remains unchanged). – userr2684291 Jul 23 '18 at 11:56
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    Would you say the version without the article is used if you only wanted to specify how something was done and not care whether there are different ways to do it in that fashion? Possibly related is this: please open a window – this means one window, but it implies there's more windows. However, open the window suggests an action as a result of which air will be let into the room – it implies nothing about how many windows there are. More pertinently, ∅ difference between X & Y means they're different, while with a difference between X & Y you're thinking of a specific difference. – userr2684291 Jul 23 '18 at 12:09
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    @userr2684291 That is what I tried to get across in my answer when I spoke about the focus of the statement. If the number of possible ways is not the focus of the answer then whether you use the article or not will likely not come under scrutiny because people don't care about that detail. What matters is that it was timely, or orderly, or whatever. In the 6 examples you quoted I personally feel that the two methods of phrasing are completely interchangeable, and other parts of the quotations make it clear there are other options. – Astralbee Jul 23 '18 at 12:12
  • Would that be the reason why these ("superlative") adjectives such as dramatic, impressive, grand, spectacular are used uncountably? – because as I conjectured you don't care whether there's another way something may have been done in another spectacular fashion; instead you're merely describing the action as done in spectacular fashion. Maybe if there was something specific that has caught your eye (and you've seen similar performances, even those done in spectacular fashion) you'd say it was done in a ("what was it, that little turn?") spectacular fashion. – userr2684291 Jul 23 '18 at 12:15
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    @userr2684291 Arguably some of these are absolutes - something either is spectacular or it is not, so you might be right. On the other hand there are many things that could be considered spectacular, but if you were describing a performance in a show then likely the spectacular entrance would be the same night after night, so is it a singular thing? Honestly, as a native English speaker I would not question someone saying "he entered in a dramatic fashion" for the reason discussed - it is dramatic, that is the important point. – Astralbee Jul 23 '18 at 12:24
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Mr C’s answer covers the abstract concept pretty well, but to bear down a little the specific problem you’re running into is that

fashion has a crapton of separate meanings

as befits the action noun descendent of Latin facere, “to do” or “make.” All those separate senses can be used in prepositional phrases: they don’t always mean the same thing. Per the OED, it started out

1. The action or process of making...

and by extension

the workmanship... of plate or jewelry

That's currently obsolete.


2. Make, build, shape...

and by extension

visible characteristics, appearance... form as opposed to matter... face, features...

Obviously, “in ~ fashion” meaning “~ in appearance” is going to be used without an article but


3. A particular make, shape, style, or pattern... a particular ‘cut’ or style... a [particular] device...

is going to show up as “in the fashion of ~” or “in a ~ fashion.”


4. Kind, sort...

is pretty rare these days but shows up in constructions similar to Shakespeare’s “Gentlemen of all fashions.”


5. Manner, mode...

which can be specific (“a method”) or general depending and loans itself to the depreciatory

...somehow or another, in a sort, tolerably, not too well...

when expressed as “in a fashion” or “in some fashion.


6. Mode of action, bearing, behaviour, demeanour, ‘air’... plural... gestures, ‘ways’.

and

7. Outward action or ceremony; a mere form, pretence...

are both pretty rare or obsolete these days, but might show up and lent themselves to the still current

8. A prevailing custom, a current usage; esp. one characteristic of a particular place or period of time... plural... ‘Manners and customs’ (of nations), ‘ways’ (of men)... spec. with regard to apparel or personal adornment.

and therefore the ubiquitous

9. Conventional usage in dress, mode of life, etc., esp. as observed in the upper circles of society; conformity to this usage...

and

Fashionable people; the fashionable world.

all of which can be either countable or uncountable depending on whether one is considering them as separate, discrete items or as general and overwhelming stuff of the type. Thus especially

11. in, out of (the) fashion: in, out of, vogue or customary use, esp. in polite society; according or contrary to the customary rule or standard.


TL;DR: So like Mr C said, the answer to

What exactly is the difference, and how do native speakers determine which meaning to employ?

is whether we’re using a meaning where it’s a countable thing, idea, &c. or one where it’s stuff or some single abstract quality or something like a substance. He’s a little off, since method and way can also be uncountable; in those cases—where there’s a single uncountable quality but many countable instances of it—it depends on what you mean or what mental picture you wish to create.


To take a few examples from your list,

... in a timely fashion ...

means in a way that happens to be timely, as opposed to the several or many other slow or uncertain ways, whereas

...in timely fashion...

means in the timely way or in the way which causes things to be timely. Since the former case is much more commonly intended than the latter, it's far far more common. Likewise

...in (a) dramatic fashion...

would contrast in a way which happens to be dramatic with in the way which causes things to be dramatic if this “fashion” didn’t actually mean “appearance.” It does, since “in dramatic fashion” isn’t really talking about a method of doing things but the dramatic effect the action causes to be felt by onlookers. Thus the uncountable structure is the much more common way to express the idea.

  • Senses 1 and 7 are obsolete, 3 archaic, 4 and 6 rare, 8 describes a prevailing custom, 9 is used with reference to how people dress, and so is 10, none of which are used in the phrase in a timely fashion, 11 is used in some idioms and fixed phrases, and the same for 12, 13, and 14, so we can safely ignore those. What's left are senses 2 & 5. Now, while 2 might be germane, it's obvious the meaning I'm looking for is 5, the figurative extension of 2: in particular 5. a. (5. c. is obsolete, 5. b. irrelevant): "Manner, mode, way, esp. in after, in, this, such a, my, his, etc. fashion." – userr2684291 Jul 27 '18 at 10:05
  • I believe the question is clear (I've even set it off with a blockquote), and it's asking for those meanings of fashion that are congruent with that pattern. Only two such meanings are therefore apposite: the countable meaning of 5. a. and the uncountable meaning of 5. a. I have no idea how the conclusion you've put forth follows from that. You say: in timely fashion = "in the timely way". So then what's the difference between in the timely way and in the timely fashion? Because there aren't any constructions left if in a timely fashion = "in a timely way". – userr2684291 Jul 27 '18 at 10:31
  • @userr2684291 But you aren't. You're lumping all the meanings together in generic searches and other senses of "fashion" (3, 8, 9, &c.) show up in them, as does "in a fashion". In the case of timely fashion specifically, I already addressed that. – lly Jul 28 '18 at 1:49
  • @userr2684291 As far as not seeing how it follows, well, obviously you're having trouble grokking countable and uncountable senses of words and I was trying to help. I specifically referenced LawrenceC's account rather than repeating it but I'm also saying the same thing Astralbee did, without his mistaken examples. Your last three sentences don't make any sense, so obviously you still missed sth. – lly Jul 28 '18 at 1:56
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    @userr2684291 Making the expression countable has the effect of implying there are other methods to doing something which don't qualify for the adjective being used: in a timely fashion (one of the timely ways, probable other untimely ways); in the timely fashion (the only possible way which is timely, certainly other untimely ways); in timely fashion (in the way which causes things to be timely w/o any regard to other possible ways). – lly Jul 28 '18 at 2:00

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