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What article should I use right after "the enigma of"? Should it be "the enigma of the" or "the enigma of a(n)"?

Please, look at these pictures. Can you guess what all these pictures are about? Rain? Well, not only rain. Storm? Well, it's closer, but still not fully there yet. What? Right - ball lightning. The enigma of ball lightning has bothered scientists for centuries. On one hand, it is known that it is nothing else than a big bunch of energy, but on the other hand, it can easily change its size - from a big ball by the size of a zeppelin or a hot air balloon to a small ball by the size of an egg or even a marble...

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The question should really be about lightning, because that is the noun in question, and that is what determines what article (if any) you should use. (Ball just functions as an adjunct here, like an adjective, so it doesn't determine the article.)

Lightning is uncountable, so "a ball lightning" is definitely incorrect.

"The enigma of the ball lightning" is grammatically possible, but doesn't really mean the right thing. The is the definite article, and indicates that we're talking about some specific, known thing, so "the ball lightning" would indicate some specific occurrence of ball lightning.

But that's not what we mean; we're not talking about a specific occurrence of ball lightning, but ball lightning in general, so the best option is no article:

The enigma of ball lightning

just like you had it in your original sentence.

  • What if it were a countable noun (but not a proper noun)? Would I for sure have to use an indefinite article then? – brilliant Sep 10 '18 at 21:24
  • @brilliant If it were a countable noun, I would probably use the plural, although I am having trouble thinking of a good example. For example, "the enigma of diamonds", not "the enigma of the diamond" (sounds like one specific diamond) or "the enigma of a diamond" (some general, nonspecific diamond?) – stangdon Sep 10 '18 at 21:54

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