There are these 2 examples for "ability" on oxford learner's dictionary.(https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/ability_1?q=ability)

This program has the ability to adapt to its user.

She has an uncanny ability to predict what consumers will want.

Would you tell me why the word "ability" from the first sentence is with "the", and why the second one is with "an"?

  • In the first example it is a design feature of the program. In the second it is more vague, and there is no specific ability; it is more of an instinct. Jul 29, 2020 at 14:42

1 Answer 1

  1. Your examples are not consistent - you have added an adjective (uncanny) to the second one. This will lead to difficulties in the explanation, so I will take the examples as

This program has the ability to adapt to its user.

The is, in basic terms, a demonstrative adjective that is related to the demonstrative adjective that.

Whereas that is used when pointing at something, the is used with a noun that is

(1) already known by the listener ("The moon is bright" = we all know what "the moon is),


(2) is about to be described by the speaker ("The tree in my garden is tall." - I have described the tree - it is the tree in my garden and not any other tree.

The is used to indicate that the noun it qualifies is a specific noun.

*(We could say "This program has that particular ability [that allows it] to adapt to its user. but the does that job for us.)

  1. This program has an ability to adapt to its user.

A/an is, in basic terms, an adjective of quantity. It is related to "one".

"A/an noun" means "one example of a noun" or "one example from among many examples of a noun" - a/an is non-specific.

(We could say " This program has one ability amongst many of its abilities to adapt to its user.)

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