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I have seen writers use phrases such as

a thousand novels

and, in song

a thousand years

preceding it with articles. I've known that articles precede, only, single concrete noun.
Why not in these cases? Is there a grammatical reason that can be explained reasonably or not?

Thank you in advance.

  • Does it imply that a thousand years as a package? – Ali Jan 6 '16 at 13:12
  • thousands or a thousand "a large number or amount of people or things" – Damkerng T. Jan 6 '16 at 15:45
  • What is your definition of 'concrete'? Can you give examples of what you consider to be concrete nouns and other types (non-concrete)? – GoDucks Jan 6 '16 at 22:21
  • Concrete nouns name people, places, or things that you can touch, see, hear, smell, or taste. – Ali Jan 7 '16 at 2:21
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In both of your cases

a thousand = one thousand

which is used metaphorically to mean a long time. Thousand is a collective or counting noun meaning 1,000 years. Other collective nouns are

a herd of cows
a school of fish
a pod of whales

they signify any number of items, however, the noun itself is treated as a single object.

A thousand also gets used as a metaphor for many things thought of collectively

The problems of pest control have been around for a thousand years
The problems of pest control have been around for thousands of years

The thousands would refer to many individual items

The thousands of immigrants that came through Ellis Island...
The many immigrants that came through Ellis Island...

  • I'm kinda confused with the definition that you gave it to a thousand. But now I noticed after you said a thousand is a noun, that a thousand has to be followed with an article, however, is not a thousand an abstract noun, therefore, it has to be without articles? You may say it has its definition metaphorically, but that really won't help me to understand this sentence He read a thousand novels. Does it mean a long time? I don't think so. So can you help me to know if you know, why a thousand is a concrete noun? I have learned that all numbers are abstract. Thank you for helping. – Ali Jan 6 '16 at 15:48
  • Why do you think abstract nouns can't take articles? I see this belief in many places, but it is not correct; there are times when abstract nouns do take articles. It might help for you to think of a thousand as "the amount of one thousand". "A thousand" is not always metaphorical - for example, if we say "There are a thousand servants in the Emperor's palace", we mean there are literally 1000 servants. On the other hand, if we say "I will love you for a thousand years", that is presumably metaphorical, or poetic license, since nobody literally lives for 1000 years. – stangdon Jan 6 '16 at 16:17
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    @Ali are you thinking something along the line of there is a difference between "a thousand" and "the thousands" (contrived example, but trying to see where you are coming from)? – Peter Jan 6 '16 at 16:58
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    @Ali You wrote "a philosophical answer" a few comments back. Is an answer not an abstract thing as well? By the way, Peter was saying that a thousand years is a long time (though possibly not literal) not that a thousand by itself is a reference to time. – shawnt00 Jan 6 '16 at 22:10
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    @Ali Here's another example related to a previous comment. Beauty is often an abstract noun and you're right we wouldn't ever say "A beauty is in the eye of the beholder". But the word beauty also can be used to mean a specific instance of something beautiful. And in that case we would say "That nice car sure is a beauty." – shawnt00 Jan 6 '16 at 22:16
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A thousand years is a compound noun with a (determiner meaning one) + a noun (thousand which is a cardinal number) + a plural noun (years).

The a has nothing to do with years as it modifies thousand meaning one.

Thousand is a noun modifier which has the following definition:

(grammar) a noun which is used attributively to modify or qualify another noun, in a different way to an adjective. For example, in railway station, railway is used as a modifier to describe what kind of station it is.

A noun modifier doesn't take the plural form as adjective doesn't have the plural form. That's why the noun thousand is not taking the plural form in two thousand years and three thousand years.

The most important thing is the word a modifies thousand, not years as two and three do in the above examples. And thousand modifies years making years plural.

Note: There are a few exceptions where a noun modifier takes the plural form, i.e. a sports car, sports news, etc. But it is disputable whether the word sports is truly in the plural form.

[Wiktionary]

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