I am trying to master my usage of English articles, specifically the definite article ''the''. I read that when you are using the 'of-phrase' you are implying a specific case indicated by the noun, and thus The article 'the' is necessary. For example: the validation of qualification, the name of a movie, the behavior of animals, the social life of America etc. However from time to time I still come across different instances that don't seem to be following this rule, for example: '''an attitude of gratitude''. Would you be able to give me a hand and explain why when phrases are followed by ''the of-phrase'' the definite article ''the'' not always present? Thank you very much in advance!

  • As you say, the definite article 'the' is used when referring to a specific thing - for instance, a movie has only one title. I find your example an attitude of gratitude rather an odd expression, but to take another example, It's a question of money, the indefinite article 'a' is used because there may be many situations that depend on someone having enough money - there isn't just one. Commented May 19, 2022 at 13:18
  • Where did you read that? As you can see from the examples you've come across, the definite article is not always necessary in such situations. Commented May 19, 2022 at 17:39

1 Answer 1


First, it is "definite" article rather than "definitive" article. It indicates that the associated noun refers to a specific thing or group of things. It stands in distinction to the "indefinite" article, which indicates that the associated noun refers to one previously unidentified thing out of more than one.

Second, in some cases, something specific may be indicated by the definite article without it having been previously identified. This happens a lot in fiction. A story might start with the sentence:

The man stared at his reflection in the pond.

In a literal sense, neither "man" nor "pond" can have been previously identified because, by hypothesis, this is the very first sentence. It is a rhetorical device to focus attention on the man who at that time is looking into a pond for some reason.

It should be interpreted as

The man that I the author want you to focus on immediately was looking into a pond, which by the way must be the specific one that he was looking into at the time because it is impossible for a human to stare into more than one pond at a time.

In short, there is some flexibility in how strictly to equate "specific" and "previously identified." English is a language rather than a law code.

Third, a speaker or writer may indicate a point of view by the choice of article. Using the definite article implies singularity whereas using the indefinite article implies plurality.

The set of criteria for X are a, b, and c

A set of criteria for X are a, b, and c

Both those sentences are idiomatic. The first implies that the list of criteria is the only possible list whereas the second sentence implies that the list of criteria is one of two or more. Intended meaning controls.

If I had to make up rules, I'd say

(1) Use the definite article when referring to something previously identified;

(2) Use the definite article when referring to something unique, e.g., "the Republic of India";

(3) Be aware that the choice of article is sometimes used for rhetorical purposes.

I hope this helps. English is a difficult but powerful language.

  • I would be inclined to say that a set of criteria, like a herd of cattle, an array of stimuli, a pair of dice (or a pair of shoes), is singular. Commented May 20, 2022 at 1:05
  • First, thank you for identifying and fixing the typos. , Second, I am not sure that I agree that the proper grammar is “The [singular noun of collection] of what is being collected is a list of multiple items.” I know books say it is, but actual usage says it is not. Logic scratches its head between “Singular of plural is singular” and “Singular of plural is plural.” I opt for usage in this case, but a good argument against usage could persuade me. In any case, I really do appreciate your cleaning up my numerous typos. My wife must have been distracting me. It is ALWAYS her fault. Commented May 20, 2022 at 3:44

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