Why do we use "the" in this sentence: "There is a pencil in the pencil-box."? Why not "a pencil-box"?

  • 4
    We would use the when referring to a pencil-box that both of us know about - maybe it is there on the table in front of us. Compare "There's a pencil-box on the desk in my office - could you fetch it for me?" – Kate Bunting 2 days ago
  • Agree with the comment above and would add: Because it is in the pencil box, not the breadbox, for example. – Lambie yesterday
  • There is a pencil in the pencil box is telling you that there is a non-specific pencil (i.e. one of possibly many and any one of those pencils is what I refer to) in a specific pencil box (i.e. a pencil box that you can identify based on some contextual information that we share between us). The sentence provides no further details on which pencil box is the pencil box. We will already know which one based on context. – EllieK yesterday

Why do we use "the" in this sentence: "There is a pencil in the pencil-box."? Why not "a pencil-box"?

The answer is that we can say it. We could say any of the following:

There is a pencil in the pencil-box.

There is a pencil in a pencil-box.

There is the pencil in a pencil-box.

There is the pencil in the pencil box.

The difference is context. Notice in the following that I use "a" the first time I mention a thing, and afterwards I use "the". This indicates that I am talking about the same thing and not a new thing.

  1. Someone gives me a pencil box. I do not know what is inside the pencil box. I open the pencil box. I see a pencil in there. I say to the person who gave it to me, "There is a pencil in the pencil-box."

  2. I look on a table. On the table I see a pencil box - it is open and I can see a pencil in it. Someone asks, "What do you see on the table?". I reply, "A pencil in a pencil box."

  3. I have lost my pencil and I am searching for it. I see my pencil it is in a pencil box that I have not seen before. I say, "I see the pencil in a pencil box."

  4. I have lost a pencil box that has a pencil in it. I find the box and see that it is open. I say, "There is the pencil in the pencil box."


If I overhear someone say, "There is a pencil in the pencil-box", when they are speaking to another person. I know without asking that this is the first time they have mentioned this particular pencil but that the pencil box has been mentioned before.


This may seem complicated until you understand that generally "a" refers to the first time you mention something and "the" refers to subsequent times. There are exceptions to this rule but it makes a good starting point.


In English you will find "the definite article", which is "the". This category of language element is not found in Russian language. So it's natural for you to inquire. I have had this question coming from ESL students and it has been one of those things, the difference between the two languages.

Here's a post from russian.stackexchange related to the same context.

Here is another article I saw sometime back. May be it's helpful for you.

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