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We only use definite articles when we want to be more specific. If in a situation where I don't want to be specific though I know the reader will understand if I specify, can I do that?

For example:

This is a cake which she made yesterday.

Or

I am reading history of China.

Or

I ate 3 bananas brought by you yesterday.

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    Yes. And the first sentence is totally wrong, so somebody needs to correct that impression. Uses of the definite article are almost always arbitrary and idiomatic; there is no single rule like "use definite articles when we want to be more specific". Each use must be learned individually, like idioms. Sorry about that. – John Lawler Dec 23 '16 at 19:53
  • Read this and then get back to us if you still have questions. – MikeJRamsey56 Dec 23 '16 at 21:58
  • Why the first sentence is wrong – Nikita Dec 24 '16 at 6:32
  • I'm struggling to think of an example where using a definite article is not more specific than using an indefinite article. Always arbitrary and idiomatic? Reading this tesol-direct.com/tesol-resources/english-grammar-guide/… there seem to be some useful guidance. – djna Dec 24 '16 at 6:44
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Many times, the readers and listeners will understand even very wrong sentences, but that is not the point. We should try to speak as correctly as possible.


Your first sentence is correct, and it has the meaning that "she" made many cakes yesterday, and you talk about one of them. If she made only one, and everybody knows that she made only one, then you must use the definite article.


I am reading history of China.

is always incorrect and it should be:

I am reading the history of China.


I ate 3 bananas brought by you yesterday.

It can be correct regarding the use of the zero article (no article), but then you should add some words:

I ate 3 of the bananas brought by you yesterday.

Also, the passive voice sounds inappropriate (although grammatically correct). I would say:

I ate 3 of the bananas (that) you brought yesterday.

If "you" brought exactly 3 bananas, then the definite article is necessary again:

I ate the 3 bananas you brought yesterday.

Bonus: although correct and common, it is unknown if "ate" was yesterday, or "brought" was yesterday ;)

  • Yes, but I think the OP may have meant: bought, though brought is not wrong. – Lambie Sep 13 at 17:07
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This article seems to capture some key ideas in when we use definite and indefinite articles, it's rather more subtle than just how specific we are being. An extract:

A/an

This is used when the noun that we wish to refer to is unknown to our listener/reader or is not part of the common ground that we share. It is most often used to introduce new information.

I saw a UFO yesterday.

Tell me a story.

Have you ever seen a tornado?

The

By using the, we are signalling to our listener that s/he is very likely to know what we are referring to and that the context of our conversation should help them to identify this. We can use the, therefore, to

refer backwards to something that we have already mentioned

refer forwards to something that we can take for granted will happen

refer to our common ground or shared knowledge

In your examples consider what happens if we change indefinite to definite:

This is a cake which she made yesterday

This is the cake which she made yesterday

In both cases we are referring to (probably pointing to) a specific cake. The difference in meaning is that in the second case we state that of the cakes we are considering she only made one cake yesterday.

I'm going to skip the history example because that gets really tricky, a history and the history give rather different meanings to the word history

The banana example would be understood

I ate 3 bananas brought by you yesterday

If we add a definite article

I ate the 3 bananas brought by you yesterday

we imply that the listener brought exactly 3 bananas. Note that in both cases we are actually being quite specific about the bananas we ate; we are talking about specific bananas, but the use of the adds to the picture.

  • Then both the sentences are right but using definite article gives a bit more specific picture – Nikita Dec 24 '16 at 7:50
  • @Nikita I agree in this case. The explanations I reference above I think give a more general description of the differences; don't get too hung up on the word "specific", there are other nuances. – djna Dec 24 '16 at 9:55
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Nikita, it’s absolutely not about ‘more’ specific and to suggest that it was would be to guarantee that you’d misunderstood. We use definite articles when we want to be specific, without qualification. Do you see the difference?

‘This is a cake which she made yesterday’ is in no way wrong - sorry, John - albeit using ‘a’ instead of ‘the’ both removes any clarity and almost invites the idea of degrees of specificity.

Uses of the definite article are almost never arbitrary or idiomatic; there is a very simple rule which clearly says: "use definite articles to be specific”; that’s what differentiates definite from indefinite articles. If John or anyone else thinks otherwise, doubtless he or they will explain…

‘I am reading history of China’ could be correct only if ‘History of China’ was the title of a college course. Otherwise, that sentence certainly needs an article although unusually, which article is moot. ‘… a history…’ necessarily means one of several, perhaps many. ’… the history…’ grammatically suggests the one and only definitive version; idiomatically, exactly the same as ‘a history’.

‘I ate three bananas brought by you yesterday’ appears confusing because of the irrelevant inclusion of ‘ brought by you yesterday’.

‘I ate the bananas…’ would be definite; it means specifically ‘all the bananas.’ No other interpretation is possible.

‘I ate three bananas…’ is indefinite; there is no way of telling whether ‘three’ means all the bananas or only some.

That the question was predicated on a misconception, Edwin, seems to be a good reason to correct the misconception, rather than to shut down communication.

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