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Example:

After a joyous and restful three days, I left this beautiful city.

Although it still kind of sounds weird to my ears, I know that when a noun, even though in the plural, is used to mean a certain amount or quantity of something, grammatically there should be an indefinite article placed in front of it. But, can you think of a rule that I could utilize to tell whether I actually need one? Because I don't see anything wrong with saying after joyous and restful three days, I left this beautiful city. With that change, does the sentence now sound wrong to you?

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    If you think of three days as a three day period (of time), then using "a" makes sense. – user3169 Mar 27 '15 at 22:18
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    +1 This is a really interesting point of English grammar that I have never noticed before. – WinnieNicklaus Mar 27 '15 at 22:52
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    In the 2002 CGEL, page 339: "In general, a selects a count singular noun: a cup, but not * a crockery. Would you like a chocolate? therefore yields a count interpretation of chocolate. Under restricted conditions, however, a can combine with a non-count singular: …" -- Notice that in your example that you have a count plural noun ("days"), and so, that probably ought to strongly imply that the "a" in your example is not functioning as the determiner for that count plural noun. – F.E. Mar 28 '15 at 9:15
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    Some more possibly related CGEL pages: 339 [21], 353 [69-70], 372-3 [11-13]. – F.E. Mar 28 '15 at 9:51
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    Part of your problem is that the following is untrue: when a noun, even though in the plural, is used to mean a certain amount or quantity of something, grammatically there should be an indefinite article placed in front of it. – user6951 Mar 28 '15 at 23:29
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I don't see anything wrong with saying:

after joyous and restful three days, I left this beautiful city.

Does that sentence now sound wrong to you?

Yes, it does. Move the word 'three' to solve the problem:

after three joyous and restful days, I left this beautiful city.

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    While your suggested rephrasing is certainly valid, it doesn't answer the question as to why there is an indefinite article in the also-valid original sentence. – WinnieNicklaus Mar 27 '15 at 22:54
  • @WinnieNicklaus - I think Chenmunka's answer addresses that part of the question. – J.R. Mar 28 '15 at 0:14
  • -1. This does not answer the question. – F.E. Mar 28 '15 at 1:01
  • @F.E. - I don't mind the downvote, but the question does read: "after joyous and restful three days, I left this beautiful city. Does that sentence now sound wrong to you?" I answered that part of the question quite directly. I understand the real crux of the matter precedes that ("can you think of a rule that I could utilize to tell whether I actually need one?"), but I don't think that every answer needs to address every facet of a question in order to be useful. – J.R. Mar 28 '15 at 9:18
  • I did the down vote because the post was getting a bunch of up votes, and I wanted readers to be aware that there might be something wrong with that post. The main issue in the OP's example and question seems to be: How come the count plural noun "days" has the determiner "a"? (The title now is: a joyous and restful three days — a three days?) And that is a very good question. How do vetted grammar sources explain that issue? Is that "a" actually the determiner for that noun "days"? If not, then what is "a" part of? Those are the sort of things an answer post ought to be addressing. – F.E. Mar 28 '15 at 9:40
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It certainly does sound wrong without the 'a'.

Look on it as:
After a period of time, I left the city.

Then substitute joyous and restful three days for period of time.

It is no different to common sentences like:
After a week, I left the city.

As you correctly state, the amount needs an article. In your example, the amount noun is modified by an adjective (two adjectives). That doesn't change the rule.

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    It is OK though to say "After three days, I left the city." and not OK to say "After a three days, I left the city." Any thoughts of why describing those three days as "joyous and restful" causes us to add the article? My first thought was also that the sentence really meant "After a (joyous and restful) period of three days" but I wonder if there isn't more to it than that. – ColleenV Mar 27 '15 at 16:56
  • -1. This does not answer the question properly. – F.E. Mar 28 '15 at 1:01
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    @ColleenV Adding period of certainly then requires a! So After a three days... must become After a period of three days.... It seems to be about whether you place the adjective(s) before or after the number. A noisy three boys entered the building Three noisy boys entered the building. The first example groups the boys together. They are a group of boys, not three separate boys. The same with the three days. They are three consecutive days, not 3 separate days over the course of a week, for example. So using a in this way seems to indicate that a grouping is taking place. – CJ Dennis Mar 28 '15 at 14:24
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a joyous and restful three days

sounds slightly odd to me. My hypothesis is that it only sounds "slightly" odd because joyous and restful is long enough that by the time you read three days, your brain has forgotten about the article, and doesn't immediately make a false grammaticality judgment unless you think about it a bit harder.

Let's do an experiment to test this hypothesis.

After a nice three days, I left this beautiful city.

This sounds quite clearly wrong to me, but still something I can imagine a native speaker doing (infrequently).

Obviously, this line of examples converges to the sentence that we can all agree is ungrammatical:

After a three days, I left this beautiful city.

(Caveat: everything here is based on personal, intuitive, native-speaker judgments, as opposed to anything some grammar book says)

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  • Well, at least you're admitting that you're guessing here. :) – F.E. Mar 28 '15 at 1:07
  • What? I never said I was guessing. I admit no such thing. – Brennan Vincent Mar 28 '15 at 1:20
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After a joyous and restful three days, I left this beautiful city.

The phrase a joyous and restful three days can be changed to a joyous and restful period of three days. Now we're talking about a period, not a three days. Let's change joyous and restful to just nice.

After a nice three days, I left this beautiful city.

Dropping the a makes it ungrammatical. You can reword it as:

After three nice days, I left this beautiful city.

However, the meaning could be slightly different. Maybe I was there for a week but only three of the individual days were nice. In the original sentence using the adjectives before the number makes it clear that the three days are a group and so the indefinite article is required. That being said, you would most likely find this formation in writing rather than speech.

If you mention the nice days in an earlier sentence you could say:

I spent three nice days here. After the nice three days, I left this beautiful city.

or

I spent three nice days here. After the three nice days, I left this beautiful city.

As for why a is mandatory, it's the same as I saw a cat. It's ungrammatical to drop the a in that sentence too.

You can say

Three fat boys ate

but not

A fat three boys ate

because it doesn't make sense to call the group fat, only the individuals.

Three noisy boys ate

A noisy three boys ate

In the first sentence each of the boys is noisy. In the second sentence the group as a whole is noisy but not necessarily every boy. It's possible for an individual boy within the group to not be noisy.

So the construction you asked about only works if each adjective can be applied to a group.

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This was said before, but I think the answer is that the adjectives 'joyous and restful' describe a period of time. 'A joyous and restful period', or 'a joyous and restful time'. That period of time lasted for three days; so the full phrase would be, 'a joyous and restful period of three days'. It is fine to leave out the 'period of', but the actual meaning behind the sentence does include that, and so the adjectives are describing that, that is why the indefinite article is needed.

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