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Task (Put in a/an or the.)

I saw ... accident this morning. ... car crashed into ... tree. ... driver of ... car wasn’t hurt, but ... car was badly damaged.

Answer

I saw an accident this morning. A car crashed into a tree. The driver of the car wasn’t hurt, but the car was badly damaged.

So the question: Why can't we use the article " the " instead of " a " at the beginning of the second sentence, because we know that we are talking about a car that was involved in an accident?

(ENGLISH GRAMMAR IN USE; fifth edition)

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  • You can. If the accident has just been mentioned, or can be assumed to be common knowledge, and you are conversing, 'the' is the correct choice. (But not otherwise.) Exam questions often fail to take into account outside-the-box reasoning. Jul 16 at 18:07
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There are many kinds of "accidents". A "car" accident is just one of them. So it would be unnatural to use "the car" right off the bat.

In fact, even if the first sentence was about a "car" accident, it would still be awkward to use "the car" in the second sentence:

I saw a car accident this morning. ??The car crashed into a tree.

This is because even "a car accident" can involve more than one car. So it would still have to be "a car" after "a car accident".

Now, you can use "the driver" without "of the car" in the third sentence because there's supposed to be only one driver in a car:

I saw an accident this morning. A car crashed into a tree. The driver wasn’t hurt, but the car was badly damaged.

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The is a determiner - basically a demonstrative adjective - the means "that exact/particular noun of which we (speaker and listener) are [now] aware.”

(The is similar to “that” - in fact it is a form of the Old English “that” and often “that” can be used in place of the.)

The is used

(i) where the noun is well known to everyone:

"The moon is bright" "The Kremlin is in Moscow" (Everyone is aware of the the moon and the Kremlin.

This applies also to the use of “the” to identify a class of nouns that the listener is expected to know or where any of the following categories applies:

"The dog (= any creature known as "a dog") makes a good pet."

"The harp (= any musical instrument known as "a harp") is difficult to learn."

"The oak lives for 600 years (= any tree known as "an oak");

“The car was an incredibly good invention.” (= any mode of transport known as "a car.")

(ii) where the noun has been already mentioned so that the speaker and listener are aware of the exact thing that is being discussed:

"I saw a (= a random example of a) cat in my garden this morning. The cat (speaker and listener now know exactly which cat is being discussed) caught a (= a random example of a) bird but the (speaker and listener now know exactly which bird is being discussed) bird escaped."

(iii) where the noun is defined or described so that the listener will know exactly what sort of noun it is:

"I saw the man that I met in Paris." that I met in Paris defines "man" and the listener now knows exactly which man you are talking about.

"The decision to shoot the prisoners was made." to shoot the prisoners" defines "decision" and the listener now knows exactly what decision you are talking about.

(iv) where the noun is later/retrospectively defined or described so that the listener realises which particular noun was being referred to:

"The cat stretched its legs and slowly walked across the room. It had lived in a small box below the window since John had rescued from the river”: lived in a small box below the window since John had rescued from the river makes the listener/reader aware of exactly which cat this is. You therefore use “the”.

(iv) to modify an uncountable noun by confirming the identity of that noun:

“I have information that you need” – no article -> “I have [some / an example of / examples of] information of which you are unaware but which you need.”

“I have the information that you need” – article -> “I have that information that both you and I are aware that you need.” (You and I are aware because either (i) you have asked us for it, or (ii) I mentioned earlier.)

In both of these examples, you will see that “that you need” defines exactly “information”, so you might think that “the” could be used in both. But it cannot be used in the first because only I am aware of the information – and in order to be able to use “the” we must both be aware.

(v) to modify a qualified uncountable noun by confirming the identity of that noun:

“I have {information about the spare parts} that you need” – no article -> “I have [some / an example of / examples of] information of which you are unaware but which you need.”

“I have {the information about the spare parts}” – article -> “I have that exact information about the spare parts that both you and I are aware that you need.” (You and I are aware because either (i) you have asked us for it, or (ii) I mentioned earlier.)

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