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Using "a" and "the"

Language is a code of audiovisual symbols (words) which refer to actual things. Nouns refer to entities or things, verbs refer to actions and states, and so on. However, we face the problem that a single word can refer to more than one thing. For example, the noun “man” can refer to:

  • All humans (both men and women):
    [Man is the thinking animal.]

  • All men (but not women):
    [To be successful, a man must have good manners.]

  • A single, unknown man:
    [I met an interesting man.]

  • A single, known man:
    [I met the man at work.]

Articles, “a” and “the”, help us solve this problem. We use articles to indicate the actual thing, or referent, of all the possible things that a noun (a word) can refer to.

Note that proper nouns, like “Paris,” for example, or “George Washington” refer to only one thing – they have only one referent – and therefore do not require an article. But other nouns have an unlimited number of possible referents. The noun “man,” for example, can refer to every single man that lived in the past, lives now, or will live in the future.

So we need a way to convey to our reader what is the referent of the noun we are talking about. We get some idea from the context in which the noun occurs, of course. But articles provide extra clarity, and help us pinpoint a noun’s referent in a precise and concise way. They are mental tools which say ‘I mean this referent, not that one.’

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