A or The?

Foreign and native speakers alike often struggle over using the words a and the in certain sentences. Why, for example, would we say, the skyscraper typifies modern architecture instead of a skyscraper typifies modern architecture? And could we use the plural instead and write, skyscrapers typify modern architecture? Let’s try to sort out this knotty problem.

We can think of writing as an effort to direct someone’s attention to something, showing how that thing we’ve identified is connected to other things in a scene, or theme, we’ve chosen to say something about. A thing can be anything at all: a person, an object, even an idea; and the more specific we are in our referring to something, the more power we create and keep in our writing. Generally, the general or abstract is more difficult for us to conceive and reflect on than the particular and the pointed. Read a paragraph from an Edgar Allan Poe short story and contrast it with a paragraph from a treatise on metaphysics and you’ll see what I mean.

The words a and the are classified in traditional grammar as articles, words that build segments of meaning in a sentence. The word article derives from a classical Greek word meaning joint, a point where we can begin to articulate something we have perceived, either in the world or in our mind. The word a is called an indefinite article, and the a definite article, and we can begin to understand how they’re used by ranking the two articles with the demonstrative adjective that. In order of specificity, and therefore strength, the three words line up in the series a, the, that: a tree, the tree, that tree. Think of walking with a friend on a magnificent early autumn afternoon when suddenly you see a tree in the full colors of the season. To direct your companion’s attention, you would not say, look at a tree, but look at that tree. The demonstrative adjective that is the most specific way to identify something, with the indefinite article a standing at the other end of the scale. The definite article the, interestingly enough, is a weakened form of the word that, and it positions itself accordingly midway between the other two words we use to single out a thing for discussion.

We can begin to see now why saying a skyscraper typifies modern architecture is not quite right, because the indefinite article a, although weak, is nonetheless trying to specify a particular building from among the thousands upon millions that exist or have ever existed. Surely, to say that skyscraper typifies is going too far, for our interlocutor would no doubt instantly ask, which one? We are left then with the definite article, but even the word the has about it, as we’ve seen, some particularizing function. And it’s right here that we come to the nub of the problem.

Our intent in writing the skyscraper typifies is not to direct the reader’s attention to any one particular building, but rather to the idea of skyscrapers in general, to the conception of tall urban structures of steel and glass where people live and work. The definite article can certainly point to a thing in the world (the tree), but it can also point to a class or kind of thing, what the logicians and taxonomists call a genus. And when the definite article is used in this way, it’s named, appropriately enough, a generic article. This generalizing force is present too when we speak of things in the plural, in effect diffusing someone’s attention to such a degree that we move their thinking into the world of ideas. That is why saying skyscrapers typify is also acceptable to refer to the idea of tall urban structures.

Speaking as I did earlier of Edgar Allan Poe, here is an example of the generic article in his unnerving short story “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The narrator is hiding in a lightless bedroom where an old man with an evil eye is sleeping. The intruder is holding an old-fashioned lantern whose light is concealed until he so slightly, so carefully opens it a tiny, tiny bit:

So I opened it—you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily—until, at length, a single dim ray, like the thread of the spider, shot from out the crevice and fell upon the vulture eye.

Like the thread of the spider? Why not a spider? For exactly the reasons we now understand. To have used the indefinite article and speak of a spider would have been to particularize the reference, making it concrete, some one individualized thing we know of in the natural world. But Poe wants rather to direct our attention (just like the writer of the skyscraper typifies) to the genus, or class, or kind of thing called spider in order to make us think about a quality of “spiderness” that is similar to the quality of light that suddenly emits so finely and slightly from the lantern: alone but determined and serving its purpose, perhaps too just like the narrator. The quality of one thing associates with the quality of another, and two orders of objects—light and the spider—overlap, creating a context, a woven tapestry of meaning.


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