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An excerpt from Java for Dummies, 6th Edition:

If you already know what kind of an animal Java is and know that you want to use Java, skip Chapter 1 and go straight to Chapter 2. Believe me, I won’t mind.

Is it grammatically correct to say what kind of an animal instead of what kind of animal which, as far as I know, should be the only correct way to say it? You see, I always thought that this type of construction was never supposed to be used with articles, even thought I had heard that colloquially English speakers sometimes do say it like that, slipping in an article here and there. And the example that I'm posting here is from a textbook on Java programming. Therefore, you would think that the grammar should really be tip-top, but, as you can see for yourselves, it's obviously not. So, what do you guys make of it? And if there's a method to the madness as to when we use one or the other that you may have heard of, please feel free to share it with me and other English learners.

Let's suppose that the writer had instead written this:

If you already know what kind of animal Java is and know that you want to use Java, skip Chapter 1 and go straight to Chapter 2. Believe me, I won’t mind.

How would the meaning be different?

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    RE: I always thought that this type of construction was never used with articles. Be very careful about any assumptions about English that include words like never and always. RE: therefore the grammar should really be tip-top, but as you can see for yourselves, it's not. I think the problem may rest with your assumptions, not with the grammar in the book. Methinks you've simply discovered an instance where an article is optional, not prohibited. – J.R. Apr 4 '15 at 10:25
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    I question your assumption that any book on Java is going to have stellar grammar, especially if it's written by a programmar. Of course, you could also have done a websearch for "what kind of an animal" and seen what kind if results you got. – user6951 Apr 4 '15 at 13:28
  • This has been touched on by an earlier ELL answer, but more extensively covered by this ELU question (posted before ELL existed, I think). – FumbleFingers Apr 4 '15 at 20:11
  • @FumbleFingers Maybe we should stick some of the answers from here over there? – Araucaria May 19 '15 at 23:47
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+200

Your question:

Is it really grammatically correct to say what kind of an animal instead of what kind of animal...?

Yes, it is. It is possible to keep an, though it's fair that you'd expect it dropped because it's usually dropped. Then again, it's quite obvious that his writing style is informal.

This entry of Practical English Usage by Michael Swan should help explain why both alternatives (with or without a/an) are possible.

551 sort of, kind of and type of

1 articles
The article a/an is usually dropped after sort of, kind of and type of, but structures with articles are possible in an informal style.

​  That's a funny sort of (a) car.
  What sort of (a) bird is that?

So, if it were:

If you already know what kind of animal Java is and know that you want to use Java, skip Chapter 1 and go straight to Chapter 2. Believe me, I won’t mind.

would the meaning be different?

Not at all (to put it simply), because in his usage, what kind of animal would mean the same thing as his what kind of an animal.

  • true that. +1 for mentioning the book I respect! :) – Maulik V May 22 '15 at 5:57
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In my dialect (northeast/mid-Atlantic American English), we might use the article "a" or "an" in conversation when asking about something that is totally new, something which we have never encountered or heard about before:

Now, what kind of an animal did you say a liger was?

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I don't necessarily agree that there is a specific, proscriptive rule prohibiting or requiring the use of an article in this situation. A case can be made for either.

The entire discussion is allegory, where the author is encouraging the reader to make an assessment of Java as a language. The analogy is apt whether it is being drawn toward "an animal or among all animals in general. A "hypertechnical" analysis might suggest that "what kind of an animal" implies a choice of "Poodle, German Shepherd, or Basset Hound" from the general class of "dog," whereas "what kind of animal" might draw merely from "dog, cat, or bear." I think, however, that kind of analysis is well beyond the variety merited in the supplied text.

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In your example, the writer says that if you are already somewhat familiar with the qualities of Java (after all, that is what you will base your decision whether to use it on) then you might as well save your time and skip the chapter. So this sentence isn't about categorisation, but caracterisation.

From online etymology dictionary (it's a bit off-topic here, but that is the only explanation I could find):

quality

c. 1300, "temperament, character, disposition," from Old French qualite "quality, nature, characteristic" (12c., Modern French qualité), from Latin qualitatem (nominative qualitas) "a quality, property; nature, state, condition" (said [Tucker, etc.] to have been coined by Cicero to translate Greek poiotes), from qualis "what kind of a," from PIE pronominal base *kwo- (see who). Meaning "degree of goodness" is late 14c. Meaning "social rank, position" is c. 1400. Noun phrase quality time first recorded 1977. Quality of life is from 1943. Quality control first attested 1935.

Now, I'm not saying that 'kind' doesn't refer to quality without the article, nor that "kind of a" is the only translation of 'qualis' - but the explanation above may be a plausible one.

  • Don't get your reasoning, but think you may be on to something with your version of the meaning ... – Araucaria May 19 '15 at 23:45
  • @Araucaria - The problem is that I can't put a finger on why, but at first I thought that in some cases one wold ask "what kind of book is it" and the reply would be "a novel" and if you asked "what kind of a book is it one might say "one full of plot twists, romanse and it has a happy ending". I don't have better proof than the one above, and I think the destinction applies to some situations, not all. In this example it just sounds that way to my (non-native) ear – Lucky May 20 '15 at 6:11
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This link tells when to use an article before a noun: Count Nouns & Uncount Nouns

Articles, a or an, indicate one (singular noun). Use the article when narrowing down to one. Because animal is used in general, the most likely choice would be to omit the article. Also, the phrase, What kind of animal, is the most common expression.

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