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Here's the situation: I meet a friend and I tell her about yesterday:

“Hey, John!”
“Hi, Sarah!”
“How was yesterday's trip?”
“It was great. Karl took me to the countryside to show me his new house. It reminded me of the/a house I rented in Oxford.”

“...a house I rented in Oxford.” indicates one of the (multiple) houses I rented in Oxford?
“...the house I rented in Oxford.” indicates I rented only one house in Oxford?

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    Your understanding of the difference is accurate. I don't think "a" would necessarily indicate multiple houses, but it would definitely leave that option open. The "most correct" way to make that choice is exactly along the lines you've described. – Tyler James Young Sep 11 '13 at 17:59
  • @TylerJamesYoung Just to make sure... I mean Sarah knows nothing of my life in Oxford and about Karl's house. I'm trying to figure those tricky cases in English when you use the definite article and yet for a listener, it's new information so no shared knowledge no first mention. It's called postmodification as far as I know and works only with prepositional and relative clauses – Dunno Sep 11 '13 at 20:37
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Tyler James Young's comment really should be an answer - or it should be the answer :))

Common usage implies singular in both instances. But there are differences that can be subtle. Always consider the simple and most normal usage first.

So recall those grammar and usage lessons: "a" and "an" are the indefinite articles. "The" is the definite. The former can be general, the latter specific. Though this is generally true, the context can change this.

  • I ate an apple. [any apple]
  • He ate the apple. [ Hey! That one was my apple, buddy ! ]
  • Adam ate the apple Eve gave him. [ Really The only one like ever like that :) ]

So how to apply this to the houses in Oxford?

It reminded me of ...

the house I rented in Oxford.

The only one you rented there. (And, obviously, there's more than one house in that location.)

a house I rented ...

You probably rented one only, but there are others you might have chosen. It's less specific.

But if you said something like:

It reminded me of a red, very small house with a pointy tile roof I rented ...

Then your friend might have replied:

Oh, you rented the Farthingworth's house ?

(No, there's probably no such place - it's just an illustration :))

She might have also said:

Oh, you rented a Farthingworth house ?

Because the Farthingworths are quirky Oxford landowners - they paint all their houses red and put pointy roofs on them. (Note also the implied possessive "Farthingworth house".)

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  • "a" is indefinite, but the nature of the indefiniteness is indefinite! If you say "a house I rented", that could mean that you rented many houses and this was one of them, or it could mean that there are many houses out there in the world (or in Oxford in this case) and you rented one of them. – Jay Sep 11 '13 at 20:31
  • @Jay hmmm, yes - thought I'd covered those examples, at least implicitly, but, now as you mention it, the coverage is indefinite. :)) – Howard Pautz Sep 11 '13 at 20:37
  • @Howard Just to make sure... I mean Sarah knows nothing of my life in Oxford and about Karl's house. I'm trying to figure those tricky cases in English when you use the definite article and yet for a listener, it's new information so no shared knowledge no first mention. It's called postmodification as far as I know and works only with prepositional and relative clauses – Dunno Sep 11 '13 at 20:40
  • @Jay this mean the is not really possible in this case? – Dunno Sep 11 '13 at 20:42
  • @dunno it's always easiest to say what you really mean and be specific enough to get that meaning across without relying on subtle grammar. In all languages, people speak plainly (unless they are lawyers or politicians :-P ) – Howard Pautz Sep 11 '13 at 20:47

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