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This has already been asked but the answer doesn't seem to be quite right as it states that "a" is supposed to be used as an "adversative conjunctive" for two parts of a sentence in opposition with each other.

However, on Duolingo I am shown an example where it says "Я Анна, а это — Том" using а for the and when I would expect to use и.

Why is this? Sure this could be in opposition if you are saying no this anna but this is Tom but it's not saying that! It's merely stating there are two people and their names.

Can someone explain why you would use а here?

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    As a minor aside, I would mention that in the sentence "Я Анна, а это — Том" the conjunctive "a" is about equivalent to the English "while": "I am Anna, while this is Tom." Jun 10 '19 at 22:27
  • “I am Anna, and this is Tom” seems at least somewhat adversative to me. You’re naming them as two different entities, held up against each other: “I am Anna; and in contrast to me, this over here is Tom”. Jun 11 '19 at 17:14
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И joins, unites words and clauses, a contrasts them, singles them out, sets them aside.

Imagine a photo of Anna and Tom, a married couple. When showing the photo to your friend who doesn't know them, you can say:

Это — Анна и Том.

By saying this, you show them as a single entity, a married couple in our case. But you can say it with a, too:

Это — Анна, а это — Том.

Here you just name the two people in the photo one by one making no allusions to whether they are connected in a way or not, a just separates them from each other, just the same way as if you said Это — Анна. Это — Том.

Now imagine that both of them like reggae music. You will tell your friend about it this way:

Анна любит регги, и Том тоже любит регги.

You use и because reggae is something that unites them. But in a similar situation, if there's something that sets them aside, you'll have to use a:

Анна любит кошек, а Том любит собак.

or

Анна всегда ездит на машине, а Том на велосипеде.

Or imagine that you and your friend are in a store, you point to different kinds of candies and explain to your friend which ones you like:

Эти конфеты мне очень нравятся, и эти нравятся, и те тоже, и те, а вон те я не люблю, они слишком кислые.

You like the first four kinds of candies, and that fact unites them, that's why you use и when speaking about them, but then there's the kind you don't like, you set it aside from the previous ones by using a. That's the main principles of how и and a work.

И объединяет, а а разъединяет.

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  • While everything here is correct, I feel that the particular phrase in question is just to be remembered as a set phrase. When you do "это - кто-то, а это - ещё кто-то" you use a, unless you saying something like "это - Сергей, и это - Сергей", if people happen to have the same name. Anna and Tom does not have to be a couple to be connected by и when you show the photo, btw. Jun 11 '19 at 5:37
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    I marked this as correct but honestly idk why they would give me that capability when I know almost nothing about the language haha. Makes sense for other subjects but not language I would think. Jun 12 '19 at 18:57
  • @TimmyGrozier - That was given to you because it was you who asked the question and it's up to you to decide which answer gives you the information you were expecting to get. I hope what I wrote helped you, but I should acknowledge the question you asked is very wide, it's hard to enumerate all the possible cases. I do want you to take my answer only together with the insights provided by Quassnoi in his answer, he povided the theoretical ground, I gave some practical approaches.
    – Yellow Sky
    Jun 12 '19 at 19:53
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А in this sense is not the adversative conjunctive, it's a topical particle.

It's used in modern Russian to introduce a new topic in questions:

А ты поел?

and to express surprise or announce news:

А Маша замуж вышла!

, but on the earlier stage of the language development it was used to start virtually every sentence on its own, which was not linked to the previous one.

Here's an excerpt from the birch bark gramota 109:

Коупилъ еси робоу плъскове

A ныне мѧ въ томъ ѧла кънѧгыни

А ныне сѧ дроужина по мѧ пороучила

А ныне ка посъли къ томоу моужеви грамотоу ели оу него роба

А се ти хочоу коне коупивъ и кънѧжъ моужъ въсадивъ та на съводы

А ты атче еси не възалъ коунъ техъ а не емли ничъто же оу него

(segmentation mine)

This usage you're talking about is the relic of that extinct usage pattern. Basically, you're telling two equally important things, not depending on each other, and you're prepending the а to the second one:

(А) я — Анна. А он — Том.

If your sentences are linked, you're not introducing a new topic and you should be using и instead:

Я Анна, и я буду сегодня вести вашу экскурсию.

Usage of а as an adversative conjunctive is slightly different:

Я Анна, а не Том. // I'm Anna, not Tom.

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The easiest mnemotechnical way to get this is to understand that these ("и" and "а") are two different words in Russian and in English there is one, "and", which has those two meanings.

The first one is "and" like in "I have a car and a bike and ..." Here one would use "и". Like this:

У меня белая рубашка и синяя. (I have a white shirt and a blue one.)

The second could be interchanged with "while" or "but" even, as said here by @Michael_1812. Here you would use "а":

У меня белая рубашка, а у Тома синяя. (I have a white shirt and Tom has a blue one.)

In that sentence "and" could be exchanged with "while" and the sense of the sentence would be kept the same.

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using а for the and when I would expect to use и.

First of all, you CAN use [и] here.

Я Анна, и это — Том.

It is 100% grammatically legal and if you say that you will be 100% understood.

Sure this could be in opposition if you are saying no this anna but this is Tom but it's not saying that! It's merely stating there are two people and their names.

No, no, no! [a] here is not for opposition.
[a] here to focus attention.

By using [а] instead of [и] you create pause to focus attention to what will appear now.

[а]-case correctly pronoused like this
Я Анна, [pause] а это [pause] Том [ta-da!].

If you do not want make a show with presentation, you should say something like this

Я Анна. Он Том.

But it is much more emotional and more alive and more human to say

Я [pause + point to yourself] Анна, [pause, ok? with eyes and intonation] а он [pause, point to Tom] Том [pause, ok? with eyes and intonation].

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