How Many Chaplains?

Our friend, the English teacher in Iran, asked another good question. Unlike his questions about the singular or plural use of “any,” this one has a straightforward answer. (Fortunately!) Here’s his question.

The Question

I have just bought a novel, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. 

There is a page about Jonathan Swift’s life. There, I found a sentence which I cannot analyze grammatically, no matter how much I am scratching my head to come up with an answer. The sentence is: 

“At the age of thirty-one, Swift returned to Ireland as chaplain to a lord justice.” 

To me, this sentence is 100% wrong grammatically. It should be: 

“At the age of thirty-one, Swift returned to Ireland as A chaplain to a lord justice.” 

Here is my reason: “chaplain” cannot be used without an “A” in front of it because it is in singular and an “A” is needed in front of it.

What do you think? Do you agree with me? 

My response.

The original sentence is correct.

Using “a chaplain” would imply that the lord justice had more than one chaplain and that Swift was one of them. As it is written, the lord justice had one chaplain, and Swift had that position.

“A” is an indefinite article, indicating one thing within a group or category. With “a” in the original sentence, the sentence would indicate that Swift was one chaplain in a group of chaplains to the lord justice.

(Note that “a” precedes “lord justice,” which indicates that Ireland had more than one lord justice.)

If any word is left out, it is “the,” as in “the chaplain to a lord justice.” However, “the” is implied and can be safely left out without changing the meaning of the sentence.

To help explain, let’s look at a comparable sentence and see if we need “a.”

“Obama returned to Washington as president to the United States.”

In this comparable sentence, “president” is the title of a position, and only one person can have the title of president to the United States. If we state, instead, “a president,” we imply that the U.S. has more than one.

Here’s a comparable sentence using “a.”

“Darwin returned to England as a leader of the scientific community.”

In this sentence, Darwin was a leader, but he was not the only leader. If we leave out “a,” as in “as leader of the scientific community,” we imply the missing word “the.” By leaving out “a,” therefore, we would indicate that Darwin was the only leader.

Now, back to the original sentence. In the original sentence, Swift returned to Ireland to be the one, and only one, chaplain to a lord bishop. Thus, the sentence does not need “a.”


Filed under Writing

3 responses to “How Many Chaplains?

  1. Farhad

    Thank you very much for your answer.

  2. Your response to this question offers a good, common sense for the appropriateness of the dropped article in the sentence under consideration. It is refreshing to read straight forward, common sense explanations suc as yours.

    Unfortunately, contemporary grammar text books and websites such as the popular Grammar Girl ( and The Purdue Owl ( both provide rules that would require the noun phrase be rewritten as “the chaplain” (a specific chaplain among many chaplins) or “Chaplain” (the formal title).

    The problem with contemporary grammatical rules is they are rigid and do not always represent the way well-educated speakers of American English actually speak. We do, in fact, frequently speak in a way that implies a part of speech. Academic grammar texts ruefully lag behind the way American English is actually spoken.

    There are two other points, from a linguistic perspective, that may not be relevant to the sentence in question, but should be kept in mind when one is analyzing the grammar of a text: the date of the text and it’s country of origin.

    In this instance, the sentence in question was first published in 1726 in England (and written by an Irishman). While authors of grammar texts are slow in changing the “official” rules of English, they do catch up, eventually. Secondly, spelling and punctuation are different in England than in the United States.

  3. ujjwalanand

    The simple examples you took are really appreciable

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