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This question may seem too basic, but after reading through 3 grammar and usage guides, I still can't find the sufficient information on this distinction.

Consider these phrases with their different uses of articles. The question is simple: how do I interpret them differently and correctly?

(1) the story about James and Susie.

I know this can mean 1., but what about 2. ?

  1. One particular story about James and Susie (not just any story about them)
  2. A story about James and Susie (not just any story out there)

(2) a story about James and Susie

Is this one OK? If meaning 2. above is OK, how does this one differ from (1) in the same sense?

(3) the stories about James and Susie

(4) stories about James and Susie

Could (3) and (4) both mean all the stories about the two or only (4) can do so?

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I'm sorry if this is too simple for you. It's obvious that you are not a beginner. However, I believe that the "two basic rules" I mentioned in this answer could be helpful. (It is helpful to me.) –  Damkerng T. Apr 6 at 16:21
    
Usually, the basic rules do work and are what I stick to. However, I noticed that in many cases we use the when we're about to explain/identify which one we mean to the audience as in "the girls in the car." To imitate your way of thinking suggestion, my thought on the story about James and Susie is pretty much "It's a story. Which story? It's the story about James and Susie (and not just any story out there)." –  Fantasier Apr 6 at 16:28
    
I'm afraid it's not just that (so it's possible to say either a or the story about James and Susie). It's more like: "It's a story. Which story? It's a story about James and Susie that you know." If you know which story, then the use of "the" makes sense. –  Damkerng T. Apr 6 at 16:32
    
I think I'm starting to get it. Perhaps I simply just complicated a simple issue :\ –  Fantasier Apr 6 at 16:53
    
In a biographical setting, #1 can also mean: the complete story of James and Susie. –  J.R. Apr 7 at 0:33

3 Answers 3

up vote 0 down vote accepted

Let's put the phrase into a larger context.

Case 1

Have I ever told you the story about James and Susie?

I might begin a storytelling session in that way. I would use the word "the", because I'm thinking of one particular story. There's a good chance there's more than one story about James and Susie I could tell, but I'm thinking of one in particular.

How might you respond?

Oh, you mean the time when they got their car stuck in the mud, and James made Susie push the car in her white cocktail dress?

That might be the story I'm talking about, or it might not. The point is, "the story" generally refers to one particularly story.


Case 2

Have I ever told you a story about James and Susie?

In this case, "a" refers to any story. Essentially, I'm asking you if, in all the stories I've told you about my friends and relatives, I'm wondering if you've ever heard me tell one about James and Susie.

How might you respond?

Well, you told me the story about how they got their car stuck in the mud, and James made Susie push the car in her white cocktail dress.

That may not be the story I had in mind when I asked my question, but I wasn't asking about one particular story; I asked if I had told you a story, which means any story, at any time in the past.
(Evidently, I have.)


Case 3

Every time we start telling the stories about James and Susie, we start laughing.
Every time we start telling stories about James and Susie, we start laughing.

Here, the word "the" doesn't change the meaning of the sentence very much. With the article, the stories pretty much means those stories we've been telling through the years. Without the article, stories probably refers to a few of those stories – a subset of the complete lore.

For example, say we reminisced about two stories last week, and about two different stories the week before that. In both cases, we told stories. Next week, though, we'll recount all the stories we can remember; we'll tell the stories.

For all practical purposes, though, we rarely worry about whether we're telling some of the stories, or all of the stories, so the article can be included or omitted without sounding awkward.

How might you respond?

Yes, I love the one about how they got their car stuck in the mud, and James made Susie push the car in her white cocktail dress.


Epilogue

Susie's Dress
Those mud stains never did come out of Susie's dress. I can't believe he made her do that!
I'm pretty sure he eventually bought her a new one, though.

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"The" is called the definite article because it is used when you are referring to a specific, definite thing. So (1), "The story about James and Susie", refers to one story about them in particular, not just any story. Normally this story would be specified beforehand in whatever you are reading, so that you would understand from context what story is being referred to.

(2) and (4) are both indefinite. You haven't specified anything to indicate (a) specific stor(y|ies). (4) could be taken to mean all the stories depending on context, but it in no way indicates that on its face.

(3) is the same as (1); it refers to a particular set of stories, not just any set of stories. There is no reason that particular set couldn't be all the stories, but it doesn't have to be.

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I think about James and Susie is, in a way, a specifier indicating that stor(y|ies) is not just any story out there but only the one(s) about James and Susie, hence the question I implied: does about James and Susie make the phrases so specific that the the's are needed even if we just talk about it (story) for the first time? Perhaps I just read too much into it. –  Fantasier Apr 6 at 16:13
1  
@Fantasier Matthew is correct, but I wonder if this confused you because of how "the story" is used in common speech; for example, "what's the story with James and Susie?" In that question, it is unclear which story the asker wants. It might be asking about how they met, or how their latest trip was, so it may seem like it is referring to multiple stories. But the asker still has one specific story in mind. –  Pops Apr 6 at 16:39
    
@Fantasier If you specify that the story is about them, you certainly cannot be referring to any story that is not about them. And great clarification Pops. –  Matthew Read Apr 6 at 22:15
    
"Normally this story would be specified beforehand in whatever you are reading, so that you would understand from context what story is being referred to." I disagree. This is a overly simplistic way to describe the definite article – something that too often leads to confusion on this site. –  J.R. Apr 6 at 23:31

Consider there is a set of stories about James and Susie.

Now, we'll go one by one...

The story about James and Susie - you are talking about one particular story (maybe, the story of how did they meet).

The second instance,

A story about James and Susie - any story from those set of stories

The third instance,

The stories about James and Susie - Those stories (which are in the set) of them

The fourth instance,

Stories about James and Susie - Stories in general (this could be out of the set)

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1  
How could (4) be out of the set while it is still about James and Susie? –  Fantasier Apr 6 at 16:00
    
I said could be. It does mean from the same set but if you are generalizing it by just telling stories, it may mean that. –  Maulik V Apr 6 at 16:02

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