A while ago I read a grammar book where I was said to use a definite article every time a noun is followed by a qualifying clause with OF or another preposition.

1.1 The first person to run the mile in under four minutes was Roger Bannister

It is said in the predicate who the person is so asking 'Which first person to run the mile in under four minutes?' would be incoherent.

1.2 The father of one of my students rang me last night

Again. We have a qualifying clause with OF. It wouldn't make any sense to ask 'Which father of one of your students' so we take THE.

1.3 That guy married the daughter of his bank manager

The same. Of course, It could be that the manager has two daughters or the other is already married or too young to marry or you don't know that there are two or it simply doesn't matter. The main thing is that the manager is the father of the woman the guy married. And it singled out by 'Of his bank manager', which is the reason why we take THE instead of A.

1.4 Cars are a major source of pollution in cities.

Why does it have an indefinite article? It's not just a source but the source of pollution. So it kind of shrinks the possible variants and we should take THE.

The same applies to the following case:

1.5 'I want to show you a photo of Jane and me.'

Why do we have an indefinite article here? It's a defined photo. Not just some random picture of strangers. A listener knows what the photo is about. But the sentence took an indefinite article instead and I wonder why. Of course, there could be lots of photos of Jane and Me in the album but as shown in 1.3 But it simply doesn't matter and our focus is that the noun 'photo' is defined by a qualifying clause.

I'm now trying to figure out some patterns and here's what I think:

2.1 I don’t like the sound of that school food…

Delete the last part of the sentence and it doesn’t make any sense. So we take THE.

2.2 Dudley gasped and fell off his chair with a crash that shook the whole kitchen.

It still makes sense even after omitting everything after 'crash' so we take an indefinite article.

Am I wrong and there is no such thing as patterns in this topic? Could anyone write down some thoughts about it? Thanks

  • 1
    This question is too lengthy to answer.Please be specific Oct 3, 2019 at 17:24
  • 1
    You can't cover every usage in one question and I cannot understand what you are aiming at in yours.
    – Lambie
    Oct 3, 2019 at 17:26
  • People learning a new language want to be told rules, and grammar books are only too happy to provide them. But English doesn't work by rules (much). For a word like the, there are just a great many familiar phrases and usages, which we extend or vary to suit new situations. If you write a question asking for an explanation of the in one specific sentence (or one type of sentence), we can probably write you a useful answer. Seeking a general rule is hopeless. (You're welcome to try, though—that's probably the best way to learn that something is impossible.)
    – Ben Kovitz
    Oct 4, 2019 at 0:26

1 Answer 1


In {article} X of Y, the choice of article has nothing to do with whether there's an of Y there or not.

Articles are used if the question "which X" is important or possible.

Cars are a major source of pollution in cities.

When we are talking about a category of things, the article is not used. We cannot ask "which car?" here and get a sensible answer.

'I want to show you a photo of Jane and me.'

Why do we have an indefinite article here? It's a defined photo.

"Defined" is not the same as "definite". "Definite" will also change wildly depending on what a speaker/listener are talking about and what they believe the other knows or has heard of.

If you can answer the question "which photo of Jane and me", then "the photo of Jane and me" is definite and you can use the. If you cannot, then it is indefinite and a/an is used.

The speaker of that sentence is saying "a photo" because he/she believes you don't know which one yet AND there is more than one photo.

Whether or not you use the or a/an depends on what the speaker believes the listener knows as far as which X. It doesn't depend on the words in the sentence.

  • The following sentence contains THE because it is explained inside the sentence: This scar was the only hint of Harry’s very mysterious past, of the reason he had been left on the Dursleys’ doorstep eleven years before. Which reason? The reason he had been left on the Dursleys’ doorstep. Whoever says the sentence uses THE because he says what reason he means inside the sentence. Am I still wrong? Oct 4, 2019 at 6:34
  • I also found this awesome example: This Pro model is fast and snappy. Of the 2 testing programs I use the 860 Pro has outscored everything else I've ever tested. I don't know what programs he means and it was never said before. The only hint is I use. This part of the sentence shrinks the possible variants and is the only possible reason to use THE. If no, then I just have no idea what happens with this little word. Oct 4, 2019 at 7:24
  • The only question that matters for a/an/the X is X, not anything else. So "the only hint" is not there because of reason but because of hint Sometimes an earlier "X is Y" in the sentence can make X definite. "This scar was the only hint..." - the answer to "which hint?" is "this scar" from earlier in the sentence. "The 860 Pro has outscored..." - the answer to "which 860 Pro" is "This Pro model" in the previous sentence.
    – LawrenceC
    Oct 4, 2019 at 15:28

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