By definition,

single means
(1) : consisting of or having only one part, feature, or portion

(2) : consisting of one as opposed to or in contrast with many

(3) : consisting of only one in number

by Merriam-Webster

So why do we still say

"a single rose"

"hold to a single ideal"


"single rose"

"hold to single ideal"

  • 1
    Consider that just because something is a "tautological repeat" doesn't mean it's bad English or ungrammatical. Repetition is used a lot in language; there is no requirement to always make the simplest statement. – Mark Beadles Jan 10 '19 at 19:02
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    "A tautological repeat" is a tautology. – Robyn Jan 10 '19 at 21:36

Repetition can be used for emphasis.

The indefinite article "a" does imply that there is only one [thing](otherwise you would normally use no article and a plural noun). So maybe you could say "single" is redundant in some sentences. But people do use it for emphasis when they want to make an explicit point that there is only one [thing].

Perhaps the word "single" could be left out in some situations, but the article "a" is a feature of the language, and you can't leave that word out (as you seem to suggest.) If you feel "a single" is repetitive, then leave out the "single". The "a" isn't optional.

  • When doesn't the use of "a" imply that there is only one thing? I can't think of anything off the top of my head. – Taelsin Jan 10 '19 at 17:07
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    @Taelsin "A person should be clear when communicating." doesn't imply that there is only one person. – jaxad0127 Jan 10 '19 at 18:20
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    No, but it implies that you are only talking about one person at a time. And the fact you don't make any other qualifications on "person" means it might be any person. So if you want to get picky, "A person should..." is effectively the same as, "People should....", but you are taking the people one at a time: "Each one should....." – Lorel C. Jan 10 '19 at 21:09
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    @Taelsin, if someone asks "Is there a doctor in the house?" and you are there with two doctors, you don't answer "no". – The Photon Jan 10 '19 at 23:10
  • @ThePhoton Perhaps I worded my question incorrectly, or perhaps it's just not clicking for me. While I agree that if someone were to ask "Is there a doctor here?" the correct answer would be "yes" if there were one or more doctors, the question is still only asking for one doctor even if multiple exist. Perhaps my question should have been: When is the indefinite article "a" used with a plural noun and not a singular noun? – Taelsin Jan 11 '19 at 16:34

Single serves the same role here that any other adjective would do, whether we are talking about a single rose, a solitary rose, a red rose or any other rose.

Introducing an adjective to qualify the rose does not change the need for the article a (or the)

The role of single is to emphasise that there are no other roses, not to replace the article.

It makes the difference between statements such as:

a pupil raised her hand
a single pupil raised her hand.

The adjective changes the nuance. The emphasis moves from the raising of the hand to the fact that only a single pupil does so. The same is true for saying a rose stood in the vase and a single rose stood in the vase.

The same rule applies regardless of whether you are talking about a rose, an ideal or any other noun.

  • 1
    Exactly. If I say "there was a problem", it does not mean there was only one ("a" could be interpreted as "one among other"). If I said "there was a single problem" it becomes unique. So basically the language is too ambiguous to infer "a" is redundant with "single". – Pierre Arlaud Jan 10 '19 at 8:58

We can say things like "six single roses" to mean something like six roses, but none of them grouped together. Since there's nothing redundant about "six single roses", there's nothing redundant about "one single rose" or "a single rose".

It's hard to describe the meaning of "single" without using the word "one". However, that doesn't mean that the adjective "single" is a good determiner. We use some other word to fill the determiner role when that role is appropriate: a single rose, the single rose, this single rose, whichever single rose, and so on.

  • Roses (and other species of flowers) might be a confusing example here, because "single rose" or "double rose" refers to the number and arrangement of petals in different types of flower. "Double" flowers have twice as many petals as "single" flowers. – alephzero Jan 10 '19 at 15:00

Just because the meanings of two words overlap, that doesn't mean they are redundant. "single" is adjective that merely indicates singularity. "a" is an article that indicates singularity and indefiniteness, and is a determiner. So "single" provides only one out of three of the roles of "a". You can also say "the single rose", and that would mean something different from "a single rose", so "a" adds meaning.

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