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I've faced the following sentence in my textbook:

He was arrested a second time.

The task was not about articles (I do not really remember what was it), but the article made me think. Why would we use the indefinite article here at all? Was not this textbook typo? (I can cite authors later on, if needed).

  • How do you think that sentence should read, to be correct in your view? – Kristina Lopez Dec 3 '18 at 16:38
  • @KristinaLopez, well, I supose it would be better using "the second time" – M.Mass Dec 3 '18 at 16:40
  • No, @spencer, the question that might go on the learners' site is "Which is correct?", but the question here is "Why can you use the indefinite article here when there is nothing indefinite about it?" There can only be one second time in this particular case. The reason it sounds like a learner's question is that the OP, who may be a learner, lacks confidence they it is right as it does not seem logical. – David Robinson Dec 3 '18 at 17:52
  • Consider a possible context where OP's example was given as a reply to the question Was he arrested a / the second time? (where it seems reasonable to suppose the replay would simply echo the article as used in the question). It seems pretty obvious to me that the second time in such a context almost always refers to recurrence of some other event or action associated with the possibility of being arrested (whether or not he had actually been arrested previously, in connection with the earlier incident). But a second time can only refer to a second arrest. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Dec 3 '18 at 18:09
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There are two frameworks (contexts here). If you take the time to work through the logic of the explanations below, you will see how this is handled by the logic of the English language. These uses depend on context. Not single utterances. I would argue (I do actually think) that without more than a single sentence, one cannot explain how the ‘a’ determiner versus the ‘the’ determiner actually work together in cases such as these.

The reason ELLers get into a bind with this issue is because some questions do not supply enough context to make an explanation possible. So, here we go...

  1. The ‘a’ determiner for a non-specific case (AN arrest) and the ‘the’ determiner when that first time use becomes specific in the same text or speech utterance.

  2. A plural noun instead of an ‘a’ determiner (arrests)

Individual times take an a determiner.

In 1. Now, let's say, the person was arrested a first time and a second time. OK, he was arrested twice. Now, the second time he was arrested, he was not charged.

In 2. If he was arrested a second time, if you want to now go on and refer to that second time, you would use "the". It has become specific.

OR

2) He was arrested five times. “The second time was a nightmare.” The second time is now specific as it refers to one of the five times.

Summary: Both cases refer to non-specific situations. The "the" is then used to make them specific within the same text or speech utterance.

That's how this works.

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