0

Some context for my question if you want to know:

For the longest time when writing English, I have just automatically added the indefinite article in front of most noun phrases because it "sounded right". However, a week ago I realized that it actually conveys the meaning of whether the noun in question is known beforehand to the reader/listener (or if you mean "any of that noun"). Now I'm frying my brain because I'm second guessing my every use of a/an/the, especially since my mother tongue doesn't have such articles.

Anyways, my questions are:

Say me and my friend are running late for work, and he has a car in his garage. In a hurry he starts thinking about public transportation and forgets he has a car(<--or the car? since it's mentioned again?), but with a confused look I say

I mean, you do have a car you know.

Now, I "know" I'm supposed to say "a car", but why is that? since technically he knows the noun in question, it's his car after all, and yet we refer to it as if he doesn't know it at all, as if it's just any car. Is this because we assume he doesn't remember it, and as such it's a new noun to him?

Second question. Me and my girlfriend have a gorgeous house. Now, in the middle of the day in the midst of my thoughts I say to her:

We do have a nice house don't you think.

Again, "a nice house", although she knows the exact house I'm referring to, our house. "The" sounds off, but I don't know why. The one thing I can think for this is that I'm talking about the general idea of a single nice house, and as such it would pass for the "any of that noun" rule.

Now maybe I'm just overthinking these, but it's really irritating since I can otherwise speak quite good English, but now I have to think about the basics....

migrated from english.stackexchange.com Jan 14 '18 at 14:39

This question came from our site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

  • 2
    I think you have been overthinking in at least some circumstances: the two sentences you present sound perfectly natural and use the indefinite article correctly. It is possible to "mis-learn" things, but if you have been exposed to a lot of English, it makes sense that you would have developed some good intuitions about when to use the indefinite article and so I would say you shouldn't ignore your sense of what "sounds right", or worry too much when you are speaking about whether you are following rules correctly. You can't consciously apply rules if you're speaking at a normal pace – sumelic Jan 13 '18 at 21:42
  • 1
    We say 'a nice house' in this circumstance because what we are actually saying is 'we have one of the nice houses'. If we said 'the nice house' we would be suggesting that our house was the only one in the world which is nice and this is patently false. We might say 'ours is the <adjective> house' but only when the house is uniquely identified by the adjective; for example we might say 'we live on Acacia Avenue, ours is the purple house'. This suggests that we live in the only purple house on Acacia Avenue. – BoldBen Jan 13 '18 at 22:24
  • I like BoldBen's reasoning. To add to it, I'd say that the verb "have" meaning possession also imposes some restrictions on the use of the definite article. The definite article will only be used, for example, if a relative clause is used (be it explicit or implicit in the context): We have the house/car you need // We need a house/car for ten people -> We have the house/car (you need). In most other cases, "have" will require the indefinite article, even if the thing possessed is known. – Gustavson Jan 13 '18 at 22:50
  • You both bring up good points, and I'll try not to overthink about these. @BoldBen yes, I was thinking that there might be meaning like that behind the article, thank you for clarifying it for me. – punctuationisimportant Jan 13 '18 at 22:52

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy