Usage

Q. I have lived abroad now almost twenty years and fear my English may be tainted by other grammars. A friend, who has been married three times to three different women, recently wrote: “She reminds me of my first and third wives.” I feel that it should be: “She reminds me of my first and third wife.” In other words, “She reminds me of my first (wife understood but not expressed) and my third wife.” There are other languages with this sort of unexpressed noun usage where the adjective is marked by both gender and syntax. Am I totally off base here?

A. When “and” is used to group modifiers that refer to more than one instance of the same noun, plurality is generally conferred upon the noun: “My first and third wives were just as nice as your seventh and tenth husbands.” This can be done seamlessly in English because adjectives (like “first” and “third”) do not vary according to the number of the noun they modify. A common instance of this usage, especially in academic writing, involves centuries. Note the differences in the following sentences:

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries were alike in at least one respect: both were lived out, in some corners of the globe, to the music of Mozart.

and

The first through the eighteenth centuries are all characterized by being entirely lost to the art of photography.

but

The year 2000 was in the twentieth or twenty-first century, depending upon your sense of numbers.

and

Léon, a historical region and former kingdom in northwest Spain, was united with Asturias from the eighth to the ninth century.

“And” and “through” tend to impart plurality; “or” and “to” tend not to.