Below is an excerpt from a test documentation for some concrete function:

  1. Specify incorrect input parameters for the function

  2. Make a call to the function

  3. Check that returned status is STATUS_FAILED

(The function returns a value, either STATUS_OK or STATUS_FAILED, this value is called return status in the documentation.)

I'm unsure about what article should be used with "returned status". I'd say that we need to use "a"-article. Am I right?

  • 2
    I would use "the returned status" because it is a specific event. But for functions in general, they might provide "a return status". – Weather Vane Jun 14 '19 at 18:16
  • But we don't even know what function will return. If it's implemented incorrectly it can return STATUS_OK. We're saying about its retun status in general here, aren't we? So we need "a"-article. – embedc Jun 14 '19 at 18:24
  • 1
    Your point 3 says "Check that returned status is STATUS_FAILED". That should be "Check [that] the returned status is STATUS_FAILED" – Weather Vane Jun 14 '19 at 18:36
  • 3
    For documents like this, it's pretty common to use a "clipped" or "telegraphic" writing style. So even if an article would be more formally correct, it would be fine to omit it in this context. – Nate Eldredge Jun 14 '19 at 19:10

As a developer, I would write this as "the return status" meaning "the status value returned by the function being tested". It could be written as "check that the function has a return status of STATUS_FAILED."

  • Thank you. But why not "check that the function has THE return status of STATUS_FAILED"? – embedc Jun 14 '19 at 18:51
  • @embedc Yes, you could use that form. I was trying to show a construction in which an INdefinite article would be plausible. – David Siegel Jun 14 '19 at 20:17

When you have a question about whether to use the definite or indefinite article, here are a couple of general guidelines about the difference:

  • Using "a"/"an" means basically "there may be more than one, and if there is, it doesn't matter which one you choose"
  • Using "the" means "there is a specific one that's important here, and other ones may not be the same"

So in this case, saying "Check that a returned status is STATUS_FAILED" means "you can have a bunch of returned statuses, but you just need to make sure that one of them (it doesn't matter which one) is STATUS_FAILED (and the others don't matter)", which is not really what you mean to say, I think.

Since the prior step was to make a (specific) call to the function, you probably want to check the (specific) returned status from that particular call. Therefore, you want the definite article to show that you mean a particular one, not just any old one:

Check that the returned status is STATUS_FAILED

Which means "It doesn't matter whether there are other returned statuses (maybe from other calls to the function that happened before, or with different parameters), you should check that the particular returned status from the specific function call we're talking about is STATUS_FAILED"

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