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As for my question about the difference between

I like a movie, Pulp Fiction.

I like the movie, Pulp Fiction.

A commenter answered: I would say the only difference in usage is that you would use the first sentence when talking to someone if you didn't know whether they'd heard of Pulp Fiction. You would use the second sentence if you know they've heard of the movie.

In short, the commenter says the usage of 'the' is associated with the listeners' knowledge of the topic. However, when I think of the movie title, The English Patient, it's not associated with the listeners' knowledge of the topic; the audience has never heard of the specific patient.

I can't say 'I bought the book' unless the person I'm talking to knows of the book already, right? But the filmmakers use The English Patient even though the audience doesn't know of the patient yet. Can we use 'the' even though the people we are talking to don't know about the topic? What are the rules?

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Definite noun phrases have different uses in English. A general usage is that the speaker uses a definite noun phrase when they assume that the hearer can identify the referent of the noun phrase.

Example:

I like the movie, Pulp Fiction.

The speaker assumes the hearer can identify the referent, that is, the hearer can identity which movie the speaker is talking about. In this case, the speaker makes this assumption because they themself have provided the referent! Here, which movie is given Pulp Fiction.

In titles a definite noun phrase is often used. For example:

The English Patient

The Lord of the Rings

The Old Man and the Sea

While it's true that we can't identify who the referent is the first time we hear the title, we can assume that the book or movie is going to identify the referent for us. By the time "the hearer" has finished reading or watching each of those works, they will presumably be able to identify which English patient, which lord of which rings, and which old man and which sea is being talked about.

For further information, please see this answer at ELU's 'A' or 'the' in titles

and

this answer at ELU's Are there any simple rules for choosing the definite vs. indefinite (vs. none) article?.

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Since the conversation is about a particular movie, the definite article is appropriate, though "a" might be used in certain context.

The statement is incorrect that any knowledge on the part of the speaker or listener is required. The definite article simply restricts something from a large set to a single item. In the example below, "a" refers to any number, and the refers to a particular number.

"Give me a number."

"My choice is the number zero."

  • > though "a" might be used in certain context. In what context, 'I like a movie, Pulp Fiction' is appropriate? – user87086 Sep 23 at 6:23
  • Sure. Colloquially, the indefinite is article often used with an appositive, e.g., "There's a movie I like, Pulp Fiction." One would never use "the" in place of "a" in that sentence. Here, one goes from the general, "a movie," to the specific. It could also be stated as, "There's a movie I like, the movie Pulp Fiction," though it seems redundant. – DrMoishe Pippik Sep 23 at 17:45
  • Thank you. Another question if you don't mind.—My boyfriend cheated on me. He's a pig./He's the pig. Which one is correct and why? – user87086 Sep 29 at 12:08
  • The rule is if there is a single pig that has been mentioned, then use the definite article. If it could be any pig, use the indefinite article. This is a rule to learn, one with few exceptions. – DrMoishe Pippik Sep 29 at 18:09
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If you want to introduce a movie which you think the listener does not know about, a more natural expression would be "I saw a movie called 'Pulp Fiction'". In your case, it should be "I like the movie, 'Pulp fiction'." because 'Pulp fiction' is in apposition with 'the movie' and 'the' acts as a pointer to 'Pulp fiction'.

It doesn't alter the use of 'the' whether the listener has previous knowledge of the topic you are referring to. By adding 'the', you are in effect forcing the listener to accept that the topic is a specific one even if he/she has not heard before.

It would be very strange if a speaker had to consider the knowledge of every listener or reader he addresses. If it were so, then there would be hardly any room for use of 'the'.

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