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I encountered a quiz:

My brother has turned _____ writer. I am proud of him.

A. a
B. the
C. /
D. an

The answer key is C. As I understand, zero article might be ok here because writer is an occupation. But on the other hand, answer A is probably ok as well especially when we take it as the shorthand of My brother has turned to be a writer.

Any thoughts?

Edit per request:

What's so special about "turn"? Why do we say "He turned traitor." but "He became a traitor."? And What part of speech is "writer" in "He turned writer"? Is it an adjectival given its syntactic similarity to "red" in "The sky turned red." Any other examples of nouns functioning in a similar way? Please cite an authoritative source on this.

  • "My Pegasus has lost his wings; he has turned a reptile and gone on his belly." -- Henry David Thoreau "But that's not the reason he turned a soldier." --Edgar Lee Masters – Eddie Kal Jun 24 at 1:05
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    Google Books: "If a shifter has turned killer, we have no choice." "Reports had come to Dawson that Denvil not only was a robber and a thief, but had also turned killer." "The cerebral strategist has turned killer." "Over the next few days, the baffled captain sent telegrams to lawmen all over the West, advising them of Gray's crimes and telling them to be on the lookout for the exTexas Ranger who had turned killer." "Although none of my respondents would admit to having turned informant, they had all encountered such people or heard about this happening to their friends." – Eddie Kal Jun 24 at 1:14
  • @EddieKal One might argue that 'reptile' and 'soldier' are not occupations. Maybe 'soldier' is an occupation? – dan Jun 24 at 1:14
  • This is a great question. James K has given a reasonable answer, but I wonder if there isn't more to it. If you don't mind I suggest you wait a couple days. I will put a bounty on your question when that option becomes available and see if we can get a more grammatically detailed answer. – Eddie Kal Jun 24 at 17:44
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    turn traitor and became a traitor have the same meaning, semantically. [correction: My brother has turned out to be a writer. turned to be is not grammatical.] He turned state's witness. It is not an oddity. turn is become – Lambie Jun 27 at 21:45
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The only possible correct option is the blank:

My brother has turned writer.

It isn't particularly idiomatic, but the other options are just wrong.

We do say that someone "turned [occupation]" but not normally in the way your example is phrased. We tend to use it when someone has changed profession, for example:

Singer-turned-chef Kelis pops up in London restaurant. [source]

This is because to "turn" in this way means to change direction.

It is sometimes used the way your example is phrased with respect to changes in belief, allegiances etc, for example:

Reasons why I turned Catholic. [source]

This is perhaps because if someone took up a belief it is tacit that they had a different belief before. With a career there is nothing to infer that a person had a previous career unless explicitly stated.

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  • The housewife turned spy. The politician turned musician. Etc. – Lambie Jun 27 at 21:12
  • What about the example "...he turned a soldier". "But that's not the reason he turned a soldier." --Edgar Lee Masters, "Lydia Puckett". – dan Jun 28 at 2:30
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    @dan Good example, but I stand by what I said - we don't "normally" phrase it that way, at least not in modern prose. It's tacit in that poem that the person had a previous occupation or life, and they "turned" when they "ran away to the war", so again, it's unusual to use the expression unless someone changed their life or career significantly. It doesn't just mean someone became something. – Astralbee Jun 29 at 11:37
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    @dan In modern grammar "he turned a soldier" can only mean that one person ("he") turned a different person ("a soldier") with turn meaning to physically rotate or perhaps to persuade, as in to recruit a spy. – TypeIA Jul 2 at 9:39
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+100

As a transitive verb you would say "a writer" or "the writer". This would be an odd (even funny) meaning since we are not usually turning people like we turn a knob.

There is a rare meaning "cause to change allegiance" For example in a spy novel, where the "writer" was the code name of a spy you would say "turned the writer".

However these are odd or rare.

The most likely meaning is the copulative and intrasitive meaning of "to change condition". In this sense you don't use an article. It is common enough with adjectives "my brother has turned purple!" but it is rare with nouns, the missing article is idiomatic. I can only remember it being used in the phrase "turn traitor", but comments above give examples of "turned killer". Google gives examples of both "turned soldier" and "turned a soldier" with the same meaning. This is a linguistic oddity, and rare except in fixed expressions.

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    In British English, you can say that someone who switched allegiance in wartime had 'turned traitor', and someone who has changed from lawbreaker to law enforcer can be a 'poacher turned gamekeeper'. If my friend suddenly jumped into the road and started directing traffic, I might say 'have you turned policeman?'. I was selling the company's furniture after it went bankrupt. We organised a sale and I turned auctioneer for the morning. The verb can be applied in many situations, and would be readily understood. – Michael Harvey Jun 24 at 16:48
  • @MichaelHarvey "A poacher turned gamekeeper" or "a cop turned murderer" or "a judge turned highwayman" is a different story. They are essentially compound words, with or without hyphens. For example "a poacher turned gamekeeper" is a [poacher-turned] gamekeeper. An alternative reading--often indicated in the spelling--is a poacher-turned-gamekeeper. No essential difference. I don't think these compounds should be lumped together with the question at issue. – Eddie Kal Jun 24 at 17:02
  • Yes they are compounds, but my comment goes further and says 'turn' can be used as required to discuss a sudden or unexpected change or assumption of role. – Michael Harvey Jun 24 at 17:07
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    @Lambie Syntactically very different sentences. – Eddie Kal Jun 30 at 16:55
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    @Lambie I have no contention there. We are talking two different things. I make no objection to the semantics. Doesn't matter turn is become. That part is obvious. My response to Michael Harvey tried to underline the fact that whether you take "soldier-turned-spy" as a compound noun or an NP with a compound adjective and a head it is a separate issue and shouldn't be lumped together in the discussion, because it doesn't explain the zero article. The nub of the problem is the zero article, which is not present in this compound structure; the article is there in "a soldier-turned-spy." – Eddie Kal Jun 30 at 17:51
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"Elevated" roles are not used with articles when used in a "blessing" or "announcing" sense (or negative things like condemning or denonuncing)

My brother is King.

Some thoughts:

The definite article connects a noun to a previous instance - either in the same conversation or through shared experience. This doesn't apply when you are blessing or announcing someone with a role, or informing someone who apparently doesn't know or understand, so the doesn't work.

The indefinite article means "I'm talking about any instance of X" - but for situations when there is only one possible X--like being King--you don't want to imply other instances of X are possible.

Nouns that refer to types or categories don't take articles. In this structure My brother is King - you are defining the "class" or "type" of "my brother".

A more practical example is:

This is my house and I am boss.

Some family roles work with this. They sound archaic and authoritative because of the above.

I am Father and you will listen to me.

Etc.

Turn is just a synonym for become. Into is not used when what X is turning into is an attribute. E.g. The food turned rotten.

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  • This is a very interesting semantic take on this. Yes, the word writer in turned writer is a category or class. The best explanation so far. +1 – Lambie Jul 1 at 14:09
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    "My brother is the King" and "Here comes the Queen!" are both perfectly grammatical, there is normally one ruling monarch per nation in any case, making "a" unnecessary. – Mari-Lou A Jul 2 at 8:50
  • @Mari-LouA Is "I'm the boss" also grammatical? – dan Jul 2 at 22:31
  • @dan yes, it is. It's similar to: "She is the [French] teacher" or “We are [the] students" it depends on context and intonation. But we don't say "He turned the/a writer” and I don't think there is a logical explanation as to why, it just is. "He turned writer", however, is quite a rare construction, albeit interesting. I would really like to know what the context was leading up to the statement. – Mari-Lou A Jul 3 at 11:30
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The verb turn is a so called factitive verb in certain its meanings and grammatical patterns.

For example, look at these sentences:

  1. The heat turned the leaves brown.
  2. The high atmospheric pressure turned the weather cold.
  3. The university turned him educated.

The grammar behind the patterns having factitive verbs

In accordance with the morphological characteristic of the so called factitive verbs developed by the science of grammar, the factitive verbs can have both direct objects and object complements.Object complements are adjectives, nouns, pronouns or phrases that follow direct objects in order to indicate what the new state of the direct object is. In other words, the object complement reveals what the direct object has become.

The words the leaves, the weather, him are the direct objects in the examples above.

The words brown, cold, educated are the object complements in the examples above.

Therefore, the verb turn is a factitive verb here, which functions as a transitive verb. The majority of factitive verbs, for example, several of them are elect, appoint, make, choose, deem, assign, name, select, judge, and designate , are usually transitive that is in consistence with the description of their morphological characteristics.

It is difficult to imagine how the verbs listed would retain their own morphological characteristic if they were used intransitively.

For example:

  1. He made student. (ungrammatical)
  2. He assigned supervisor. (ungrammatical)
  3. She elected MP. (ungrammatical)

The verb turn is one of the exceptions among the factitive verbs

But, the verb turn retains its characteristics as a factitive verb, even if it is used as an intransitive one, as in the question that belongs to the OP. For example,

  • My brother has turned writer.

Proof:

  • His senior relatives, some of whom are in arts themselves, have turned my brother writer. I am proud of him.

So, the verb turn bears some elements of the so called ergativity in own morphological characteristic. As the verb open, for example. Though, the verb turn is not an ergative one in a strict sense of this morphological (grammatical) term.

The verb turn often is called a copular (linking) verb in many dictionaries and grammars. It is not a correct description, in some strict sense. The verb bears very complex morphological characteristic, several elements of which I tried to indicate briefly here above. Such definition in dictionaries just tries to explain its syntax in simple words for learners.

This question of how to understand the grammar and semantics behind such factitive verbs is applied to the problems of the grammar and semantics behind the patterns of imperative constructions as well, for example. We may study two sentences from the modern English-language newspapers. The first is published with US editorial staff, the second - with Malaysian staff.

  • "Don’t be traitor and lose your seat.", The Navajo times, 12 December, 2017.

  • "Do not be a traitor to your motherland.", The Star, 23 February, 2015.

As it will be mentioned further, the verb be is one of the verbs that can bear the features of linking and factitive verbs in some patterns. For example, we never say It is a Wednesday today. Instead, we usually say It is Wednesday today in the conversational and written speech. But, such an example of a written speech as It was a Wednesday when everybody was tired in the middle of a working week is possible and grammatical.

So, after reading above, it seems, you can answer the question put; not in detail really, but, on some sufficient level for the learners interested in such scientific-popular problems.

Any other answers for the learning task (quiz) from the OP are impossible. It is My brother has turned writer only, because of the meaning of the second sentence I am proud of him. The second sentence licenses the complement in the first sentence writer as an abstract noun. The general connotation of the sentence is positive.

For comparison, the general connotation of the sentence My brother has turned a writer could be neutral or negative usually. Such a sentence must be within a certain context that is established unambiguously. Noun writer is a concrete one here. The postmodifying phrase, or clause, is necessary usually in such a sentence. It could determine the general connotation of the whole sentence. For example, My brother has turned a writer, who is working in time off.

Detailed answer to the question in the OP

Taking into account the volume of your question, I repeat it in full and give answers to each sentence of your question.

Looking for a grammatically detailed and reference-based answer that addresses:

  1. The existing answer seems to suggest "turn + zero article + noun" is a singular linguistic oddity. Is that really the case? Are there any other verbs which when used copulatively take the zero article and a noun?

Answer. I shouldn't call such syntax an oddity. Such patterns are just unusual in everyday speech, but very informative in some styles of writing, and even in certain professional jargons.

We should use the pattern turn+zero article+noun in the sentence.

There are some other verbs that are used in their certain lexical senses, for example, be, grow, go, sound, become that can support factitive sense of certain patterns with them. For example,

  • He has grown writer.

  • He has grown wrestler.

  • He went manager.

For example,

  • The young has grown singer and rapper who moved to the international market so fast after his hit tune "Iron man", which got recognized alongside Burna boy's Anybody among Nigerian beautiful songs by the former president of the United States of America, Barrack Obama. Opera News Official, 2020.

  • GUPTA: Liz Devine is the supervising producer. Before going Hollywood, she spent 15 years as a criminalist with the L.A. County's Sheriff's Department. CNN.2005.

  • ...the Company didn't have the right to go manager/operator. Decisions and Orders of the National Labor Relations Board, Volume 334 United States. National Labor Relations Board.

  1. And why "turn"? What's so special about "turn"? Why do we say "He turned traitor." but "He became a traitor."?

Answer. The special characteristics of the verb turn have been described in short above. Yes, it is a special verb having special syntactical and morphological characteristics.

We use the pattern Subject+turn+zero article+noun, as in He turned traitor, to inform a hearer about the state of self-perception that a person that is referred to by the Subject-pronoun has achieved or about resulting condition of something.

In case of turn used as a linking verb we use the pattern Subject+turn+indefinite article+noun just for relating the person that is referred to by the Subject-pronoun to some indefinite set of traitors in the perception of the society.

You can understand after reading the paragraph that these patterns have different senses.

  1. What part of speech is "writer" in "He turned writer"? Is it an adjectival given its syntactic similarity to "red" in "The sky turned red." Any other examples of nouns functioning in a similar way? Please cite an authoritative source on this. 4. Why do we say "He turned red." "He turned writer." but "His face turned a slight pink color."?

Answer. Writer in such pattern is a noun functioning as a subject complement. No. It is not an adjective. Complements in the patterns of factitive verbs can be either adjectives, nouns, pronouns or phrases. It is a noun writer in the case.

There are a lot of nouns that can function in the pattern in the similar manner, for example, He turned politician, he turned journalist, he turned TV-presenter and so on.

The pattern tells us about the state of self-perception of a person or resulting condition of something. That is why, His face turned a slight pink colour means in essence His face is a slight pink colour, (not so well composed).

But, the pattern His face turned slight pink means in essence The resulting condition of his skin is that its colour has become slight-pink.

Here are some useful examples to explain how complements may look in the patterns with the factitive verbs:

  • The populace elected Obama president of the United States.

  • The committee named Mr. Fuller chairman of the board.

  • The jury judged the defendant not guilty.

  • She deemed him person of high quality.

  • The group designated Marshall leader from then on.

  • The coach made Messi captain of Barcelona.

The most widely accepted linguistic terminology on this subject can be found here: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Resultative

There is no any source on such topic in the open media space. In any case, I haven't met any yet. Similar, but much more strict with its terminology and style of presentation, content is for the specialized editable publications of the paid journals.

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    Why is this answer multi-downvoted? This answer is the only one that addresses the bounty follow-ups. – Eddie Kal Jun 29 at 18:52
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    I haven't downvoted, @Eddie, but I can see several reasons to do so. It's full of cruft. It contains a number of grammatical mistakes and logical inconsistencies. It isn't well written. It's long-winded even by my lax standards. In spite of all that, buried under it somewhere, it does address the bounty. That the use of "turn" in question is an ergative factitive, and that "turn" is more typically used as an active-voice transitive, might well be enough to explain why the licensed complement is restricted to attributive forms. It may be a mess, but it's a worthwhile mess. – Gary Botnovcan Jun 29 at 22:20
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    @Gary Botnovcan I did not downvote this answer. The simple answer here is that turn is become. Howver, the grammar mistakes in the examples (and in the explanations, too) touted are problematical: He has grown writer.//He has grown wrestler//He went manager are all three no-gos. Therefore, I do understand why this answer was downvoted. – Lambie Jun 30 at 17:00
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    @Lambie, the relevant fact and crucial point is that "turn" is not like "become". The verbs in "he turned writer" and "he became a writer" show different behaviors, license different kinds of argument, and would result in a different answers for the quiz question in the OP. The "became" is copular, licensing a wide range of subject complements which include predicate nominatives. The "turned" is stranger, and far less simple to describe. The subject isn't quite a patient, and the complement isn't quite a nominative. Claiming that "turn" is like "become" is outright a wrong answer. – Gary Botnovcan Jun 30 at 17:40
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    Whether "He is grown writer" or "He went manager" are grammatical (bit I have my doubts) is not really the point, in English they sound weird. Instead, "He has grown to be a [fine] writer" and "He went to the manager" are more natural sounding and make sense. Chomsky wrote: "Colourless green dreams sleep furiously", it adheres to the rules of English grammar and syntax but it is meaningless. – Mari-Lou A Jul 2 at 12:33

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