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Could someone explain the difference between these two? Why does the first one take the definite article and the second one takes the indefinite article?

1) Thousands of years ago, it was only kings, pharaohs, and emperors who had the ability to solve large-scale problems.

2) I believe gays have an ability to see beauty in places other people might find repellent or unattractive.

Both examples are taken from the internet. In both cases, the abilities are definite enough to take THE.

Does it work if I change the sentences?

1) Thousands of years ago, kings, pharaohs, and emperors had an ability to solve large-scale problems.

I state that it wasn't just one ability that they had. But to change the central point of the sentence, I choose the first form with THE. My main focus now is one specific ability and kings, emperors and pharaohs are the only people who had it and this allows us to take the definite article.

2) The ability to see beauty in odd places is so rare that only gays can have it.

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In this example, the meaning doesn't really change whether you use "an" or "the".

In principle, "the ability" means one specific ability, while "an ability" means an unspecified ability. But in this case, it doesn't really matter whether you're talking about a specified or an unspecified ability. It doesn't change the sense.

Addendum in Response to Comment

If I said, "Mike has the ability to make money", the use of "the" means that there is just one such ability. But if I said, "Mike has an ability to make money", the use of "an" means that there is more than one ability under discussion. I might mean that there are many different abilities that might enable one to make money, like one might be a good business manager or one might be a good engineer or one might be lucky at gambling or whatever. Of these many different abilities that one might have that enable him to make money, Mike has one of them. On the other hand, I might mean that there are many abilities out there, the ability to run fast, the ability to make friends, the ability to be a good father, etc, etc. Among all of these abilities, one of them is the ability to make money, and that's the ability that Mike has. (I might also be thinking both: that there are many different abilities that enable one to make money, and there are many other sorts of abilities also.)

Depending on context -- whether I use "the" or "an" and which possible meaning of "an" I am thinking of -- might or might not really make a difference to what I am trying to say. If my point is simply that Mike is good at making money, and I go from saying he has this ability to talking about how much money he has made and what he does with the money, then it probably doesn't matter which of the three possible meanings I had in mind. Frankly, it's likely that I wouldn't even think about it. On the other hand, if my point was to discuss different abilities that would help one make money, if I was trying to say, "Mike has an ability to make money, and Bob has a totally different ability that also enables him to make money", then my word choice would be more carefully chosen.

  • If we follow your logic, then every time we add something after 'ability', it should take the. The ability to face difficulties The ability to solve problems The ability to whatever – Through The Wonders Oct 7 at 16:41
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    @ThroughTheWonders I thought I said the opposite. If I said, "Bob has the ability to leap tall buildings", I'm saying he was one specific ability: this one. If I said, "Bob has an ability to leap tall buildings", I might mean that of all the abilities someone might have, Bob has this one. Or I might mean that there are many abilities that might enable someone to leap tall buildings, and Bob has one of them. Any of those 3 possibilities -- one for "the" and two for "a" -- make sense, and in context there isn't much difference between them. – Jay Oct 7 at 19:41
  • This makes a lot more sense. Concluding, articles are more about context. If I can't understand the context of a story, then there's no way I can explain the possible reasons responsible for using one of them. And yet, it's still too foggy to use properly so I better go and read more. Thanks! – Through The Wonders Oct 8 at 8:12
  • I would be also grateful to see any examples of your second explanation, which is ''I might mean that there are many abilities that might enable someone to leap tall buildings, and Bob has one of them.'' Josh has an ability to make money might imply that he has one ability in order to make money, which could be anything. He might be good at math and it allows him to make money. If so, then I might say ''Mike has an ability to make money'', thinking that it's because he knows a lot about leadership. Is that what you meant? Like Mike has one indefinite ability in order to make money. – Through The Wonders Oct 8 at 13:54
  • Thank you for the explanation that I hope will also help other people. There's hardly any difference between the second interpretation of 'an' and the one that has the definite article other than It is just the specified version of ''an ability to make money''. I hope that the key to success here is to read more and exercise deliberate caution and try to explain the possible reasons why one is more appropriate. – Through The Wonders Oct 13 at 15:18

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