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I realize that in the following passage, the conjunction a is interpretable as and. If I were translating this into Russian from English, I would have forgone the conjunction altogether and written two separate sentences. Otherwise, I would have naturally opted for и as my first choice to render and since it's the more logical and accessible form for me as a non-native Russian user. (In English we only have one "and" and и is the first form we're taught when we learn Russian, so it's my go-to conjunction.)

Are a and и perfectly interchangeable with the meaning and, or is there a distinguishing nuance at play that I don't know of? If so, does it apply to both the written and spoken form?

Как много талантливых и чудесных людей бывает у нас в гостях, а вчера к нам зашла фотограф Евгения, со своей очаровательной дочкой Алёной.

  • You don't need the comma after Евгения. – Sergey Slepov Aug 31 '17 at 13:56
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    I didn't write it. I copied it from the internet. But thank you. – CocoPop Aug 31 '17 at 13:57
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А and и are not even imperfectly interchangeable; they're not interchangeable at all.

But first things first; the whole thing looks a little off to me as a single sentence. I took the liberty of finding the entire paragraph, and I see what happened now.

Друзья, как здорово взглянуть на свою любимую библиотеку со стороны! Как много талантливых и чудесных людей бывает у нас в гостях, а вчера к нам зашла фотограф Евгения, со своей очаровательной дочкой Алёной. Спасибо Евгении за хорошие отзывы о Бартеневке, ждем в гости еще!

Making the paragraph flow correctly in the reader's inner ear was the writer's priority, so they wanted to avoid both an exclamation mark and an ellipsis after в гостях, because they're both too "strong" as it were. But they didn't spot the less obvious choice which I think captures it just right: comma followed by dash.

Как много талантливых и чудесных людей бывает у нас в гостях, — а вчера к нам зашла фотограф Евгения, со своей очаровательной дочкой Алёной.

The comma after Евгения is technically incorrect, as was pointed out in the comments, but intonationally, again, it makes a lot of sense. Punctuation rules are often at odds with how you'd naturally segment a sentence in Russian.

Anyway: this is an over-specific and thus very unhelpful example if you want to learn about а vs. и, because the а here doesn't really connect anything, despite the punctuation making it look like it does. It's more of an introductory а that doesn't go beyond its own clause, only extending to the right, as it were, and bordered off on the left.

И, in this case, would also have been an introductory и with no real syntactic connection to what preceded it; but like in most cases, since а and и are not interchangeable, и would have changed the meaning significantly: to "yesterday, too, a photographer named Yevgeniya stopped by". As it is, with а, I'm not sure you even have to translate the а. It doesn't have a real English equivalent. A lot certainly do come to mind — "say, yesterday...", or "thus yesterday...", or "speaking of which, yesterday..." – but as far as I can tell, a person writing and thinking in English would likely just say "yesterday" right away.

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  • That's very interesting, thank you for your research and wonderful explanation. At least I don't feel like I'm missing something with that example. – CocoPop Aug 31 '17 at 23:16
  • @CocoPop, there is also a conversational 'a' which is just added in the beginning of a sentence: "А погода(-то) испортилась". I think, it's like 'y'know' in English. – AlexVB Sep 1 '17 at 5:10
  • @AlexVB: I've seen that before! I think I once saw the exclamation "А вкусно!" – CocoPop Sep 2 '17 at 0:15
  • Another thing, I've noticed that the particle -то often occurs in conjunction with "a," as in your example. I always found that odd because I associated it with "and" and "but." But with your explanation, it kind of makes sense. I guess it's just a way to colloquially call attention to the sentence and to an element of the sentence that is being emphasized. – CocoPop Sep 2 '17 at 0:20
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    "speaking of which" or something similar would be better.As an English speaker I wouldn't start with "yesterday". You need some form of connection here. It doesn't make much sense without connecting words. А is the "here's some more information word"—comparisons, connections, additions, etc, are done with this word, and the translation will vary according to context. – VCH250 Jun 30 '18 at 19:48
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Типовые предложения с союзом "а": There are three main types of sentences with the conjunction "а" 1.with opposition (противопоставление)

Говорите, что хотите, а человек он хороший.(You can say whatever you wish,but he is a nice man.) Виноват я, а не ты.(It's me, who is guilty, not you).

2.Matching (сопоставление)

Я пошёл домой, а он остался.(I went home, but /whereas he stayed. Я убирала комнату, а они мне помогали(I was cleaning the room and they were helping me.)

We often observe discrepancy of the parts of the sentence (несоответствие)

Дело к весне, а мороз всё жёстче(Spring ia coming, but/meanwhile the frosts are becoming more severe )

  1. Connection (Присоединение)

За деревней было поле, а за полем начинался лес.(There was a field behind the village and the forest was behind the field ) Он занят, а потому и не пойдёт в театр.(He is busy, and he won't go to the theatre with us.) Что делаешь сегодня? А завтра?(What are you doing today? And tomorrow? )

According to Ефремова the meanings are just the same:

  1. Употр. при соединении предложений или членов предложения, указывая на их противопоставление или сопоставление. 2. Употр. при присоединении предложений или членов предложения, указывая на их очередность или временную последовательность.

Rusgram.ru describes the same points, but gives a very interesting introduction to the topic. They say that "а" can show the absence of control of the subject over the action, or "unexpectedness ".(союзы с компонентом отсутствия контроля а, но).

Ее пригласили, а она не пришла.(She was invited, but surprisingly she didn't come)

Returning to our sentence, I believe that we have "connection " here, the meaning is "and", but if we wanted to translate it into English, we would say, "for example" just to show the importance of this visit but "and" is also suitable.

...for example /and (what a pleasant surprise! ) Jane, the photographer, with her charming daughter...

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  • Thank you very much, that's very informative. Unfortunately without English versions of those sample sentences, I can't gauge the effect of "a" on their meaning. That's the very reason I posted this in the first place is that I don't know what to make of it :) – CocoPop Aug 31 '17 at 23:20
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    That is terrific! Thank you so much for doing that :) – CocoPop Sep 2 '17 at 0:12
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The conjunction а most commonly has the meaning of contrast or opposition, similar to but in the English language. In your example though it means something close to "for example" or "for instance".

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    That's true in most cases, but in the example sentence it's more like "also" or "by the way" – Alissa Aug 31 '17 at 13:18
  • @Mustaccio: when I first read this, I actually thought it meant something like "incidentally" or "in fact" and you just confirmed it. Thank you! That makes a lot of sense. – CocoPop Aug 31 '17 at 13:24
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А” indeed translates the English “and”. Unlike “но” and “but”, it does not point out any contradiction. “Никита принёс орехов, а Вася принёс огурцов” → “Nikita brought some nuts, and Vasya brought some cucumbers”. There is no contradiction, real or implied. Better to say, there is no “conflict” in the ideas that needs to be resolved. The “conflict” of ideas may be present and therefore go (or not) into the translation (“а мы думали, что вы всё сами принесёте” [in a sad voice, since they thought, on the contrary, it was our responsibility] → “oh, we were so sure you would bring everything by yourself”), but it's not specified. After all, nobody's making yet an argument over the missed things, so there is no need to use “но”.

Unlike “и”, however, “а” does introduce a contrast, a switch of attention. One might say, “и” just adds information to the “table” that was already installed. “А” installs a new “table”. In the sentence about the cucumbers, there is no point to add anything to the information that Nikita brought the nuts, so “и” would not go really well. But if I translate “Nikita brought some cucumbers, and/but Vasya did not like them”, I might use either. Another example: “Я пошёл к Васе, и мы с Васей пошли в цирк” (continuation) vs. “Я пошёл к Васе, а с Васей приключилась беда” (the switch of context: “I went to Vasya's, and it turned out Vasya was in trouble”). In the second sentence, I might also use “и”, so that the context would be the continued one: “I went to Vasya's, and then he got in trouble”. Also: “Я пошёл с Васей по грибы, а/и по дороге нам встретился Васин сосед”. The word would determine what I would feel about the second part, how I would perceive it, in which context.

Another example (from a popular song): “а мы любили, а мы могли свою любовь найти … etc”. Again, there's no contradiction with anything. But the “а” serves to introduce a new “table” on which we expose our ideas. The interesting part is that the previous “table” has not been mentioned, rather it's just the state by default.

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