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an excerpt from the book "Walking the Way of the Horse", page 111:

... horses can use their front legs and hooves to strike at other horses. This might occur when two horses meet for the first time or when a male and female horse see each other when the female is in "heat".

the phrase the grammar of which I don't understand:
(1) This might occur ... when a male and female horse see each other ...

The general rule (as I see it) says:
The horse sees well at nighttime. — correct
The horse see well at nighttime. — incorrect
Horses see well at nighttime. — correct
Horses sees well at nighttime. — incorrect

Since (1) violates this rule, why is it correct to use "horse see" in it?


my variant:
(2) This might occur ... when male and female horses see each other ...

Is (2) correct?
If not, then why not?
If it is, then what's the difference between (1) and (2)?

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  • 2
    see well at nighttime is not idiomatic. At night is. It's because there are two horses as nouns, so the verb is plural. compare: When a horse sees another horse.
    – Lambie
    Feb 10 at 16:59
  • 1
    Hint: It is not one single male and female horse. Feb 11 at 15:46
  • Why would heat be in quotes? Strange
    – Fattie
    Feb 11 at 16:49
  • @Fattie because it's a slang term I suppose.
    – tgdavies
    Feb 12 at 2:03
  • 1
    @Fattie I should have said "informal, in the context of a book about horses"
    – tgdavies
    Feb 12 at 20:41

4 Answers 4

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It's a slightly awkward phrasing.

The noun phrase that governs the verb has a plural meaning. The author means "a male horse and a female horse" This coordination of two singular nouns results in a noun phrase that is plural.

But the author wanted to avoid the repetition, so has reduced this to "a male and female horse". I say it is slightly awkward, since it could be read as a coordination of adjectives, modifying a singular noun. Context tells us that that is wrong, and that the meaning is plural. So there is no problem in understanding.

Your variant with "Horses" is a good choice, and avoids the awkwardness. But it slightly changes the meaning. "A male horse and a female horse" means one of each sex. But "male and female horses" could mean one or many of each sex.

This is just a situation in which there is no perfect phrasing: "Precise, grammatically smooth, not repetitious: pick two"

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    Are the following sentences correct?: i) A blue and red pencil were on the table. ii) There were a blue and red pencil on the table. iii) My and your pencil were on this table. Thanks.
    – Loviii
    Feb 10 at 18:48
  • 2
    yes𝅳𝅳𝅳𝅳𝅳𝅳𝅳
    – James K
    Feb 10 at 19:10
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    @Loviii The "one noun, two adjectives" intent of "a male and female horse" could have been helped by an extra "a": "a male and a female horse." In this case we were unlikely to have thought it meant one horse that was simultaneously male and female, but in some other context the confusion would be possible: "A black and [a] white cat had a fight on my fence last night." Feb 10 at 20:09
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    @Loviii Please stop making all these little changes to your questions as you go along. It is unfair to everyone. A man and a woman walk here everyday. [two people] A man walks here with a woman everyday. A blue pencil and a red one were on the table. There was a red pencil and a blue pencil on the table. "a" cannot take a plural unless there are two of the same thing and this is spelled out.
    – Lambie
    Feb 10 at 20:33
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    @Lambie You wrote: "Please stop making all these little changes to your questions as you go along. It is unfair to everyone." Unfortunately, I couldn't understand it. What does "these little changes to your question" mean? Why is it unfair to everyone? Could you please explain to me what you meant?
    – Loviii
    Feb 10 at 22:15
6

To basically restate James K's answer in slightly different (maybe hopefully clearer?) terms:


This is a case of ellipsis. The full phrase without ellipsis would look like this:

"… when a male horse and a female horse see each other …"

There are two horses. Each horse is singular, and so takes a singular article. But both of these horses are the subject of the verb, so the verb is plural.

However, repeating the word "horse" like this is somewhat awkward, and also unnecessary. We can simply leave the first "horse" out of the sentence, with the reader being able to mentally fill it in based on the surrounding context:

"… when a male and a female horse see each other …"

Here there are still two horses, each of them singular, but both of them together acting as the subject of a plural verb.


Where I personally disagree with the book's author slightly is that I would not also leave out the "a" before "female".

I would not do so in speech (where "and a" is pretty much pronounced like a single word anyway), and so would also not do it in writing. The English language is full of articles, conjunctions, preprositions and other similar short words like these that take no stress when spoken and just fall in the gaps between the other words. They are so short that omitting them saves basically no time, and naturally repeated so often that repeating them is not unusual or awkward at all.

Besides that, the phrase "a male and female horse" could be alternatively parsed as referring to a single horse that is somehow both male and female at the same time. Obviously that's not the intended meaning in the given context, but just having to consider and reject that parsing is needlessly jarring. Leaving in the second article rules out this alternative parsing.

All that said, however, the author's version is still clear and understandable enough in its context. In fact, I probably would not have even noticed the missing "a" when reading it if your question hadn't focused on that particular phrase.


Ps. Your version with "male and female horses" is also correct, but less precise: it allows for (and even implicitly suggests) the possibility that there may be more than one male horse and more than one female horse involved. The author clearly intended there to be only one of each, so they chose to use two singular subjects instead.

By the way, "male and female horses" is technically also elliptic; the full phrase without ellipsis would be "male horses and female horses".

For what it's worth, "a male horse and a female" would technically also be correct; when a repeated word can be omitted, we can usually choose either one of the repetitions to leave out. However, this version sounds slightly more awkward to my ear, perhaps because adjectives in English normally come before the nouns they refer to, and so having "female" refer backwards to the word "horse" before it feels a bit awkward. It almost calls for a placeholder like "a male horse and a female one", although, at least to my ear, that's not quite necessary in this case.

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In reality, native speakers don't really think too hard about this, so it may be hard for us to determine the rule. I am not a language expert, but am a native speaker.

I believe this is really a shortened version of

"This may happen when a male horse and a female horse see each other..."

I believe all native English speakers will confirm the following are correct...

"This may happen when two male horses and a female horse see each other..."

Or

"This may happen when a male and two female horses see each other..."

Notice that there could be some confusion dealing with plural phrases. Subject-verb agreement is different than adjective-noun agreement.

For example, "A male and female horse are happier together."

Verses "A male horse is happy alone."

The phrase "a male and female horse" is a plural noun phrase. But "female horse" is a singular noun.

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It's one male horse, and one female horse. The two together are plural.

Makes perfect sense to me 👌

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  • You are correct, but this doesn't add anything new to the existing answers. Please read through those before giving your own answer.
    – Joachim
    Feb 15 at 13:51

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