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In our English exam, we have a question called "error correction" where we get a paragraph that has a grammatical error on each line. We're required to point out the error and then substitute it for the correct word.

Here's the line:

The smallest things could make him really upset or give him the intense reaction.

(It's about a king who can't control his emotions.)

Everyone in our class wrote that "the" is the incorrect word, with "an" being the right word in its place. However, our English teacher says that the incorrect word is "or". I didn't stick around to ask her what she thought the right word to substitute it was.

I would truly appreciate it if you validated our answers and explained why it would be so.

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    You have my sympathies, as this is not a well-written question. My first instinct was to say the error was a missing superlative, which mates better with the definite article: give him the intensest reaction. If the king has no control, as opposed to limited control, you could argue that the smallest things would as opposed to could. And of course, the smallest things don't give so much give him as provoke in him or inflame in him an intense reaction. Having an intense reaction and being really upset is a pleonasm, but pleonasms aren't grammatical errors. – choster Jan 19 '18 at 20:03
  • Without context, I don't think there is a clear error. There are several potential conflicts, but I agree this is a very bad question – Sean Houlihane Jan 19 '18 at 21:47
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I suspect your teacher's argument is that since "upset" and "intense reaction" are similar, it doesn't make sense to use "or" between them. The king couldn't have an intense reaction without first becoming upset, and so "and" better fits the context.

Still, "give him the intense reaction," is not natural English (and is the kind of casual mistake that identifies non-native speakers). You can't fix this just by replacing "the" with "an".

Yes, "an intense reaction" is fine:

I had an intense reaction to the medication -- I developed a severe rash over most of my chest.

but not "give him an intense reaction". We experience an intense reaction, or something might cause an intense reaction, but we are not given an intense reaction.

Instead I would write this sentence as follows:

The smallest things could upset him and evoke an intense reaction.

Still, it's not very good writing. Why not just specify what kind of reaction?

The smallest things could upset him and cause him to fly into a rage.

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