The Grammarphobia Blog

Kind of an answer

Q: I am a former English teacher and I am bothered by people who insert the indefinite article in front of a noun when it is not necessary. For example, I recently called a dentist to make an appointment, and the receptionist said, “What kind of an appointment do you want to make.”

A: Here’s the situation with “kind of” and company, at least in modern usage. When you use expressions like “kind of” or “sort of” or “type of” or “breed of” to refer to a member of a larger class, it isn’t necessary to use “a” or “an” afterward.

Although many people add the article in speech, common practice today is to omit it. The article “a” isn’t needed, for instance, in “This is an odd kind of word” … or … “What breed of dog is that?”

But when you use “kind of” or “sort of” as an adjectival phrase meaning “rather,” the article is commonly used if a noun follows (“Our assignment is kind of a drag” … or … “Jack is kind of a jerk”).

Naturally the article isn’t used when “kind of” is an adverbial phrase – that is, when it modifies an adjective or a verb – and it means “in a way” (as in, “Our assignment is kind of difficult” … or … “Our class kind of flunked”). These uses of “kind of” are frowned on by many purists, but they’re extremely widespread in informal English.

By the way, “kind” is an extremely old word, and has been part of English since at least as far back as the 800s when it meant a class or division of things. (The adjective originally meant natural or innate.)

Over the centuries, the noun “kind” has been used to refer to a person’s nature, origin, gender, sexual organs (in the case of men, their semen), race, kin, offspring, and many other things.

Since the 1400s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, we’ve used twin constructions with “kind,” so that “all kinds of trees” is the equivalent of “trees of all kinds,” and “this kind of thing” is the same as “a thing of this kind.”

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