Friday, May 14, 2004

In discussing articles, we often use the word definite to describe one type of article, the definite article which is the.

Definite means specific or particular, in other words, I know what you mean on the part of the reader. Definite also means unique; that is, it is the only one or only group.

When there is only one, that is unique and definite.
The earth, the world, the universe

When there are many in a category, the category or group is definite.
The stars, the planets, the Great Lakes, the Himilayas

Superlatives are definite because these are usually one or few.
The best, worst, finest, brightest, most, least
the brightest stars, the tallest buildings, the fastest runners

Prepositional phrases and adjective clauses after a noun usually make the noun more definite especially when they add information that the reader already knows.

The wing of the building
the woman who grew up in Honduras

Context influences the use. In the follow sentence, I can use either the indefinite or definite article. My choice here depends on whether or not I think the reader knows the woman I refer to.

A woman who grew up in Honduras took my class a year ago.
(I know who the woman is but the reader does not.)
The woman who grew up in Honduras took my class a year ago.
(Both I and my reader know this woman or she has been introduced before this sentence.)

Often we use the guideline that in a paragraph after the first use of the noun with an indefinite article, the definite article is used with the noun when we use the noun. This is a good general guideline, but it is not always accurate. Consider these two pairs of sentences.

My teacher assigns a paragraph every week. The paragraphs are
hard for me to write.

Here the writer refers to the paragraphs the teacher assigns. In this context, the paragraphs are definite because they are the paragraphs the teacher assigns.

My teacher assigns a paragraph every week. A paragraph is hard for me to

In this sentence, the writer makes a more general statement about about paragraphs using the indefinite article to say the writing of any paragraph is difficult.
So the guideline of repeating the same idea in the next sentence works most of the time, but it is not an absolute or unbreakable rule.

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