I guess I understand the basic rules of "A/an and the" in Cambridge Dictionary grammar tutorial.

However, I have no idea which rule in that tutorial fits the following situation.

A post use article "the" in this way

A research paper uses the term "proxy data sets" in this way

where "the term" refers to "proxy data sets" immediately after it. In this situation, should I use "a" or "the"?

Could someone please give a hint? Thanks in advance.

  • 1
    Good question! I know that it’s ‘the’, but I’m having trouble finding out why; the normal ‘the vs a’ debate doesn’t seem to apply here. – Fivesideddice Apr 7 '20 at 1:02
  • 1
    I agree it's subtle. If you said, for example, "Jones' paper used a term, "proxy data sets", in a way that was new to me", you could use the indefinite article instead. The choice between definite and indefinite article really depends on a syntactic subtlety, not just on the semantics of the thing (a or the "term") we're talking about. – The Photon Apr 7 '20 at 1:11
  • 2
    That said, I disagree with the use of "A" as the first word in your example. You should use "The paper", implying the sentence is discussing a particular paper whose identity is known by context, or some other determiner (like in my example) that indicates there's a particular paper being discussed. – The Photon Apr 7 '20 at 1:12
  • @ThePhoton Unless this is the first time that paper is being mentioned, in which case the would be misleading. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 7 '20 at 12:11
  • @JanusBahsJacquet, Sure, but then you should qualify it in some way (like "A research paper I was reading yesterday...") before telling someone about the new term you found in it. Often in examples presented to discuss their grammar, there's some implied context that isn't included in the example as presented – The Photon Apr 7 '20 at 16:48

There is only one term "proxy data sets". There isn't another term that is also "proxy data sets" (like there is only one number 17. There aren't two different numbers among all the numbers we know that are both 17).

So when we talk about "proxy data sets", it's the term "proxy data sets". It's not (*)a term "proxy data sets" because if we're talking about "proxy data sets" as a term, there's no other term we could be talking about.

On the other hand, as I mentioned in comments, if we re-word the example a bit, we can end up using the indefinite article instead, as in

Jones' paper used a term, "proxy data sets", in a way that was new to me

In this example, what's important is that the paper used a term that was new to me (it could be any term at all). But then we've added an aside, mentioning what term that was. But just because we mentioned the term in passing doesn't change the overall sense that what was important that I learned a new term when reading the paper, rather than what term it was in particular.


@ThePhoton gave a good answer that I upvoted, but let me add a little to it.

In general, you use "the" when there is only one of the thing that you can be referring to, when taken in context. Use "a" when there is more than one.

Like, "I ate at a house on Elm Street." There are many houses on Elm Street. I visited one of the many. But, "I visited the house that Bob lives in." Bob presumably lives in only one house, so there's only one house that I can be talking about.

Sometimes either "a" or "the" is grammatically possible, but which you use depends on the facts. Like, "I got lunch in a diner in Cooperton" or "I got lunch in the diner in Cooperton"? If there is only one diner in Cooperton, then it should be "the". If there are two or more, it should be "a".

Whether something is "a" or "the" can change as the narrative proceeds. Often something is introduced as "a" because it is one of many. But once you have mentioned it, now it is the only one in the current context, so it becomes "the". For example, "In the bookstore, I found a book about aardvarks. I bought the book and found it fascinating." When I first mention this book, it is "a", because there are many books in the bookstore, maybe even many books about aardvarks, and this is one of the many. But once I focus attention on this book, now it becomes "the book", that is, the one book that I am now talking about.

  • 1
    Upvoted, as good answer, however with regards to your last paragraph, I don't think it's imperative that you mention the thing first, so long as the context is there. For example, "I got in the car and went to the shop" implies that you went to the shop in your own car, whereas "I got in a car and went to the shop", implies that you used a random car to go to the shop instead. – crazyloonybin Apr 7 '20 at 15:33
  • @crazyloonybin Quite true. I didn't mean that you would ALWAYS start with "a" and proceed to "the", but rather that this happens SOMETIMES. Namely, when you start out with a generic or unspecified item, and then select one of them for further discussion. – Jay Apr 7 '20 at 20:49
  • Yes, of course. It was just to help OP and other non-native speakers to realise that it doesn't need to be that way all the time, so long as the context is there :) – crazyloonybin Apr 8 '20 at 8:50

I realize this has been answered, but I want to offer perhaps a simpler explanation:

  • "A" is an indefinite article. It could be referencing any among several possible items, such as "a puppy," or "a color."
  • "The" is a definite article. It references a specific item among a set of alternatives, or perhaps the only possible item in a given context.

In the context of your example, the writing is referring to a single, specific term of "proxy data sets;" hence, the definite article "the" is appropriate.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.