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a. He doesn't know if someone has entered his apartment in his absence.

b He doesn't know if a neighbor has entered his apartment in his absence.

c. He doesn't know if one of his neighbors has entered his apartment in his absence.

Which of the above sentences could be used if the idea is that he has a specific person or neighbor in mind?

I think only (c) works in that context. It seems to me that (c) can be used whether he has a specific neighbor in mind or not. The other two seem to me to indicate that he doesn't have a specific person in mind. If we had 'a certain person' and 'a certain neighbor', then it'd be clear that he has someone specific in mind.

Many thanks

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    People understand the idea of "if" pretty well, but the idea of "not if" is quite confusing. I would avoid the pattern of "... not ... if" and just rewrite them to "... if" which is always possible in English "he doesn't know if" can be "he is ignorant if" or some other form that avoids the "not".
    – Edwin Buck
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 21:05

2 Answers 2

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Clearly, option a does not limit the class of possible entrants.

Options b and c limit the class of possible entrants to neighbors without any indication of a specific neighbor. I do not see that “one of the” is more specific than “a.”

In your question, you seem to have answered yourself.

A certain neighbor

A particular neighbor

The neighbor next door

etc.

English has lots of words. Use as many as you need to express what you want to convey.

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    I like Jeff's "a certain neighbor" because it emphasizes the concept of a single person being considered, but doesn't share who that person is with the reader. The problem with this sentence is it is about a person not knowing what he "knows" or suspects. I'd recommend re-framing the statement without the negative. "He suspected a certain neighbor may have entered his apartment in his absence." This means he's still not sure, but he is not sure about a specific person.
    – Edwin Buck
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 20:30
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    @EdwinBuck great comment. I am going to upvote your answer. Commented Aug 18, 2022 at 1:17
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  • "someone" implies any individual person
  • "a neighbor" implies a person that lives nearby
  • "one of his neighbors" implies a person from the group of nearby people.

In none of the examples is there the idea of a specific person; the person is always a general, abstract person.

To state a specific person, one would need to unambiguosly describe the person directly.

When describing the person is an abstract member of the group, it is often impossible to know if a specific person is in mind, even when it seems that there is obviously only one person in the group that matches the detailed description.

To express the idea of a specific person, the sentence would look like "He didn't know if Pete Smithson entered his apartment in his absence."

To express the idea of a general person, where there is likely one person that still matches the general description, the sentence would look like "He didn't know if his neighbor who held his spare set of keys had entered his apartment in his absence." Notice that even in this very specific "neighbor" there is the possibility of two or more neighbors matching the description, if he kept multiple sets of keys with multiple neighbors.

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    Nice answer. I do think that “a certain neighbor,” or even better, “a particular neighbor” does indicate that the narrator has a specific individual in mind without specifying that individual to the audience. This slight disagreement does not imply that I do not admire your answer. Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 14:23
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    @JeffMorrow Thank you. Your answer is great too!
    – Edwin Buck
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 20:24

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