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.
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?
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.”