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I have been struggling with articles for quite a long time. Most of the times, I understand but then the more I understand them, the more it's getting perplexed!

For this particular question, I'm keeping in mind that the definite article 'the' is used for the one and only, a unique thing. Known to both - the listener and the speaker. If I say there was a table, it means there was some table but then if you and me are standing in a hall and we see a table, I won't use an indefinite article. There, it's Do you see the table? Quite clear.

Let's extend this further...

You and me are standing on a footpath. And we see a sexy Bentley...

"Wow, what a car!" is generally what we hear. But...

why not the? I'm talking about that Bentley only --that particular car, in front of us (like the table).

And to argue, I'm not talking about the same model by German Volkswagen AG (or else 'a car' is justified!) because it has a beautiful sticker of Spiderman on it. Volkswagen does not make it that way!

Same case with...

"What the beautiful pair of legs!" - She's right in front of me!
"What the movie it is! Awesome!" - Telling someone in the interval.

Though I'm asking this question, What a beautiful... and What a movie... seems correct.

Ah, I am trying to come up with What the [countable noun]... examples but finding it difficult. Is it that weird?

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The rule you learned for the is incorrect, I'm afraid. –  snailplane Jul 7 at 10:10
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@snailplane The comment could have been more useful if it had some more information. :) –  Maulik V Jul 7 at 10:24
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There's the added risk that any phrase beginning with "What the [noun]" will be misinterpreted as a "polite" version of WTF . –  Carl Witthoft Jul 7 at 13:11
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I like complicating things: it is common to hear both "That's quite a car" and "That's quite the car." –  Kyle Hale Jul 7 at 17:37
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The sentence should be expanded out to "Wow, what [a fine example of] a car!" The sentence as a whole is indicating that the car is exceptional among cars. While it may be a singularly exceptional car, you are not comparing it to itself, you are still calling it a car, included in the class of other items we call cars. –  Adam Davis Jul 7 at 19:57

6 Answers 6

up vote 37 down vote accepted

The definite article is not used in this expression.

When we assign an entity membership in a class we use the indefinite article, regardless of how ‘determinate’ the entity is, because it is not the only member of the class.

For instance, we ordinarily say “I own a ’57 Chevy”—that is, “The car I own belongs to the class ’57 Chevy”. You own only one car, it is entirely determinate, you introduce it into the conversation with the definite article; but it is just one of many ’57 Chevys. You would only say “I own the ’57 Chevy” if you and your hearers were looking at a group of cars and you were identifying your car as the only ’57 Chevy in the group.

Likewise, when you speak of a particular individual known to your hearer, you use a definite determiner in identifying or naming her—my wife—but the indefinite article in assigning her to a class: “My wife is a graduate student in mediaeval English lit.”

In the same way, when you say “What a car!”, you are not identifying the car but asserting its membership in the class of “cars to which attention should be drawn”.

We never say "What the X," because that utterance is not intended to identify which X you are talking about. It does not enjoin the hearer to "Look at that X", it observes that that X is an X of a certain class: it is an X which excites your admiration and deserves your hearer's attention.

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@MaulikV “I own a ’57 Chevy” ~ “The car I own belongs to the class ’57 Chevy” (and particularly the case of "What the X" is an assertion of asserting its membership in the class of “cars to which attention should be drawn”) is actually the key. I hope you will read this answer carefully and see its true value along with the hidden gems inside. –  Damkerng T. Jul 7 at 13:38
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We never say "What the X", but I do hear "What the F" quite a lot.... :-) –  Hellion Jul 7 at 14:30
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@Hellion (Not because you don't know, but to avoid confusing learners) Collocations like What the hell or the milder or stronger oaths are a different idiom entirely. The What is an interrogative, and the the [oath] which follows is an intensifier; the whole is an abbreviated What [the oath] is that? or What [the oath] is that supposed to mean? or something of the sort. –  StoneyB Jul 7 at 14:37
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To make it more clear: "what the hell" and its more profane phrase siblings are abbreviations of "what in the hell", where hell was most definitely a determinate singular entity. See also: "What in the wide world of sports", "What in blazes", "What in tarnation", etc. –  Kyle Hale Jul 7 at 17:34
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Definitely agree with the simiarities here between WTF. When I read "What the car" I thought "sounds like something I say when my kids to something stupid "What the fff... hhh... car!! are you doing to the cat? Put her down, NOW!" –  corsiKa Jul 7 at 21:46

What the hell? What a headache!

No, you can't use the definite article in this context. What a great example of why that oft-quoted rule – the definite article 'the' is used for the one and only – trips people up from time to time. In reality, when to use "a" vs. when to use "the" runs much deeper than that.

The key here is the way what is used in exclamations – as a predeterminer. As for why we use "a", I believe the word "a" in this context narrows the quantity down to one. For example, I could omit the "a", and reference the plural:

What good books you can find at the library!

but when you want to reference a particular book, you use "a" in that context:

What a good book I finished reading yesterday!

What a great question, by the way.

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@Maulik - Yes - that's why we don't generally say, "Thomas Edison invented a light bulb." I wrote a little more about this here. –  J.R. Jul 7 at 9:36
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@DamkerngT. because in that case one new compass materializes every time we make/build one, that doesn't alter the case that the compass was invented in China. Or to say it differently the compass is a concept, a compass is an object. –  Laure Jul 7 at 10:03
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@Laure Thanks, though my point was things weren't as clear-cut as we wish it would. Here is a case I still couldn't figure out its pattern: They made the wrong choice, she asked the wrong question, but he could take a wrong turn (the wrong turn is possible but less likely), and while people usually say hit/pressed the wrong button, it's still possible to say hit/pressed a wrong button. I tried to apply my intuition which I believe is closer to the sense of definite than specific and/or generic reference and failed to explain these cases. –  Damkerng T. Jul 7 at 10:16
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@O.R.Mapper I'm afraid not. The wrong question certainly does not imply that all other questions are the right question. –  snailplane Jul 7 at 11:36
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Yes, really. If someone tells me I'm asking the wrong question, it doesn't automatically make "What color is a banana?" the right question. If I'm supposed to hit the 'X' key, but I hit the wrong key, it doesn't make every other key the right key. –  snailplane Jul 7 at 13:23

The most straightforward way to make the distinction here is that the is used when the object is being referred to directly as a specific object and a is used when the object is being referred to as part of a type or class of object.

The car parked at Steve's house is a nice car.

Here the first part of the sentence is being specific about the car we are talking about - the one at Steve's house. The second part of the sentence is placing that specific car into the group of cars we would call nice cars.

Just the same, the sentence:

I would like to buy a nice car.

is not so specific about which car we want to buy - it is only saying that we want to buy a nice one. Supposing we saw a nice one earlier, you might say

I would like to buy the nice car we saw at the showroom today.

Now we are referring to a specific car; the one we saw today - not just any nice one we might find.

As for the construct:

What a(n) [adjective] [noun]

It is worth noting that it is not a complete sentence on its own. To say:

What a beautiful pair of legs.

Is not technically a complete sentence. It is a colloquial construction that implies a complete sentence like :

What a beautiful pair of legs she has!

The verb is missing from the fragment in the first example. The verb is always referring to the specific object - those legs (are) or the pair of legs (she has). The use of what in this case is inverting the structure of the sentence. It is the same as saying:

The pair of legs she has is a beautiful pair of legs.

or

She has a beautiful pair of legs

or

That is a beautiful pair of legs.

The meaning is the same as the case of the car above - a specific object is being referred to as a more general type of object. If the sentence were altered so that the verb acted on another object then you could use the in the same situtation - consider:

I see the beautiful legs she has.

or

The beautiful legs she has are distracting the English language learners.

Now there is a verb that points directly to the beautiful legs - I see and are distracting.

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What's your take on *a pair of sexy legs or the pair of sexy legs. The girl is right there in front of us. The rule that you said here is common and I know that! Check my examples and it'll be clear what I am confused with. –  Maulik V Jul 7 at 11:34
    
@MaulikV I've added a bit more description. –  J... Jul 7 at 11:44
    
Yes, this is better now. +1 –  Maulik V Jul 7 at 12:58
    
In US grammar, "pair" is singular, hence "the pair of legs she has is a beautiful pair of legs. –  Carl Witthoft Jul 7 at 13:12
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@CarlWitthoft I'm pretty sure that's grammar in general. Corrected - thanks. –  J... Jul 7 at 16:49

If we say, What a great car! then we are saying that the car is one of great cars that are in the world. There are many great cars in the world; this is just one of them. It is one of many. It is not the only one. Since it is only one of them, it is "a great car", not "the great car".

You could think of it like this:

What [an example of] a great car!

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Now really confuse him and explain how we can say both "That's quite a car" and "That's quite the car." –  Kyle Hale Jul 7 at 17:35

'a' is correct in the example and 'the' is wrong.

This is because the article is not refering to the Bentley in front of you. It is refering to a property of the Bently. - You are stating; "Consider the Bentley, that is definitly a car."

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It is likely that "What the XXX" would be used in casual (informal) speech, if the phrase didn't mislead the listener into expecting:

"What the fuck!"

An extremely common swear.

If "What the XXX" were used, it would most likely be used in the same sense as "Quite the XXX".

It's a case where the exact rules of the language were bent in order to avoid offending people.

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