9

In a BBC One show Would I Lie To You the host says "Gary [...] has had to endure a dreadful five minutes." (video on Youtube).

I'm curious about the indefinite article, since I've never seen it used in this situation where it clearly refers to the plural of five minutes, and not, for example, a five minute walk. This usage of an a contradicts what I've been taught (in my learner's book the sentence would go "Gary has had to endure dreadful five minutes").

The only thing I can think of is that the dreadful five minutes itself is a description of a singular event/entity, in which case I'd be happy for a name or designation of this language construct (and perhaps even some further examples of it).

  • I can't explain the reason why you need an indefinite article there, but what you have there is a common pattern in English. When there is a number between a plural noun and and an adjective describing that noun, you precede all that with an indefinite article. Here's a link to a similar discussion: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/53685/… – Michael Rybkin Jan 28 at 12:56
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    Since it's come up in passing in the question, I feel I should mention that "a five minutes walk" is not correct. It's "a five-minute walk" (though the hyphen may be optional, the change to the singular is not). This has come up before here: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/6434/… This is called an "attributive singular" sometimes. – Robert Furber Jan 28 at 17:01
  • "A dreadful five minutes" sounds to me like a loan translation of the French phrase, "un mauvais quart d'heure," modified from 15 to 5 minutes for the sake of bathetic humour. – Mike Spivey Jan 29 at 8:13
19

"Gary [...] has had to endure a dreadful five minutes."

in this five minutes has become a single item a single collection of minutes. A single dreadful block of five minutes.

Here are more examples

A collection of painted blue houses

A miserable 30 minutes of rain.

A [descriptive word] [time period] rest of sentence.

  • 1
    Your first example is not valid, because "A" clearly refers to the noun "collection", not "houses". The rain example works, but it's pretty much the same as the one in the OP. – Darrel Hoffman Jan 29 at 16:47
  • @DarrelHoffman i would say "collection of painted blue houses" is a noun phrase, and example 2 is to show that this construction isn't special or unique that it works in any combination. – WendyG Jan 30 at 9:19
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The indefinite article is here because the "five minutes" referred to is a actually a description of a single time span (which consists of 5 minutes) rather than a plural, it's confusing because of the use of "minutes" but it effectively is the same as saying

Gary [...] has had to endure a dreadful period of time lasting five minutes.

(which would be far too cumbersome to actually say)

Another way to think about it is to change to something that doesn't use a plural word in describing the singular, a crowd is multiple people for example but is itself a singular:

The band played to a crowd

9

This only happens when an adjective comes before the number. Using an indefinite article (a / an) immediately before a number, or an adjective without an article is grammatically incorrect as shown below, although using the definite article (the) can work in either case:

endure a dreadful five minutes

*endure dreadful five minutes

*endure a five dreadful minutes

endure five dreadful minutes

The definite article (the) allows the adjective on either side of the number:

endure the dreadful five minutes

endure the five dreadful minutes

Using an indefinite article suggests that there are multiple instances of "five dreadful minutes". As shown above, the order of the adjective and the number has to reverse when an indefinite article (a / an) is added. Note that you can't replace the indefinite article with "one" or any other number:

*endure one dreadful five minutes

*endure two dreadful five minutes

This can be analysed as a form of ellipsis (leaving something out):

endure a dreadful (period of) five minutes

endure (a period of) five dreadful minutes

endure the dreadful (period of) five minutes

endure the (period of) five dreadful minutes

In all cases "period of" comes immediately before "five (dreadful) minutes". The indefinite article requires something to attach to, either "dreadful" or "period of". If neither are there, "a" must not be used either. This is not the case for "the", which can still be present without the adjective or the noun which ends up being left out, as long as there is something else it can attach to ("five (dreadful) minutes" or just "dreadful").

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