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"I work in an office building."

Do we determine the article in these cases by looking at the main noun "building" -> "a building"? Or do we determine the article by looking at the modifying noun "office" -> "an office"? I know in this case it's an "an" because "office" starts with an "o", but I'm asking more along the lines of which noun to look at to determine if it's countable/uncountable?

Like, "I like vegetable soup". I know soup is non-countable. But is "soup" non-countable, or a "vegetable soup" non-countable? Do you know what I mean?

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    "An" marks the whole NP as indefinite. It is outside the nominal "office building". The bracketing is "[an [office building]]". In your other example, the noun "soup" is non-count, as is the noun phrase "vegetable soup".
    – BillJ
    Commented Dec 4, 2021 at 8:48
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    You have asked a number of questions but you have never accepted any of the answers. It would be a friendly move if you did that when they have answered your question(s). You need to click on the green tick (US=check mark).
    – mdewey
    Commented Dec 4, 2021 at 14:44
  • office building is a two-word noun phrase (NP). The rule for choosing a or an before any NP is always the same: if the NP starts with a vowel sound, use an, otherwise use a. Commented Dec 4, 2021 at 16:21
  • @mdewey, I know. I've been away from the computer for a while as it's the weekend, and I wanted to rest. I appreciate all the answers a lot. Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 6:25

2 Answers 2

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In a noun-noun construction, the attributive noun (the first noun, i.e., "office' in "office building" or "vegetable" in "vegetable soup") is functioning in many ways like an adjective that modifies the second noun. The head of the noun phrase is therefore the second noun ("building" or "soup").

You would base questions of countability, etc., on the second noun. Consider the following examples:

furniture: non-count noun

rice: non-count noun

pudding: non-count noun

store: count noun

office: count noun

cakes: count noun

cherry: count noun

recipe: count noun

I needed some some furniture (non-count noun) that would be appropriate for an office (count-noun). I went to three furniture stores (count noun) before I found some office furniture (non-count noun) that I liked.

Would you like some rice (non-count noun)? Would you like a rice cake (count-noun)? Yes, I would like a few rice cakes (count-noun).

Do you have any cherries (count noun)? Yes, you can have a few cherries (count noun) to eat. You can also have some rice pudding (non-count noun) or some cherry pudding (non-count noun).

I have many recipes (count noun) for pudding (non-count noun). I would be happy to share my pudding recipes (count noun). I have two recipes (count noun) for cherry pudding (non-count noun). Let me know which one of my two cherry pudding recipes (count noun) you enjoy more.

Note: A store (count noun) that sells office furniture (non-count noun) is an office furniture store (count noun). In "office furniture store," "office" modifies "furniture" to make "office furniture," and then "office furniture" modifies "store." So the head of the noun phrase "office furniture store" is "store," which is a count noun.

For example:

"Have you ever been to an office furniture store?"

"Yes, there is a local office furniture store that I have visited a few times." (Here, "local" modifies "store.")

The same pattern holds for "cherry pudding recipes" (count noun).

For example:

"I have several really wonderful cherry pudding recipes that I can share with you." (Here, "really wonderful" modifies "recipes.")


Note: The use of "a" versus "an" is ALWAYS based on the SOUND of the very next word — if the next sound is a vowel sound, then use "an." If the next sound is a consonant sound, use "a."

Examples:

"a bus"

"a big bus"

"an old bus"

"a big old bus"

"a nearly-30-year-old bus"

"an almost-30-year-old bus"

"an octopus"

"a big octopus"

"an ugly octopus"

"a very ugly octopus"

"an especially ugly octopus"

"an octopus expert" (This is a person who is an expert regarding octopuses.)

"a famous octopus expert" (The expert is famous, the expert specializes in the topic of octopuses. However, technically, this could also be interpreted as someone who is an expert regarding famous octopuses. The first option is more logical.)

"an Austrian octopus expert" (This could be an expert in octopuses, and the expert is Austrian. Alternatively, it could be an expert in Austrian octopuses. The first option is more logical.)

"a professor"

"a famous professor"

"a university professor" (Note: "University" begins with the sound "y" as in "yoyo," which is a consonant sound for the purposes of "a" versus "an.")

"an old university professor"

"a $5 bill" ("a five-dollar bill")

"a $1 bill" ("a one-dollar bill") (Note: "One" begins with a "w" sound, which is a consonant for the purposes of "a" versus "an.")

"a $50 surcharge"

"an $80 surcharge"

"a child"

"an only child" (This is an idiom that means a child who doesn't have any brothers or sisters.)

"a one-in-a-million child"

"a dollar"

"an honest dollar" (Note: "Honest" begins with a vowel sound. The "H" is silent.)

"a silver dollar"

"a heavy silver dollar"

"a cell"

"a prokaryotic cell (e.g., a bacterium)"

"a eukaryotic cell (e.g., a human cell)" (Note: "Eukaryotic" begins with the sound "y" as in "yoyo"...)

"a simple eukaryotic cell"

"an interesting eukaryotic cell"

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  • Great explanation. Thank you. On a side note, I've read that some people say "a herb" instead of "an herb". It depends on the accent. Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 6:52
  • I meant "A great explanation". LOL. Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 7:10
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I add to what BillJ has rightly commented.

For noun phrases, like the examples office building and vegetable soup, we base our choice of articles (a or an) on the word immediately after the articles.

To determine if a noun phrase is count or non-count, the noun, not the attributive noun, determines it.

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