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There is an article in The Guardian, and it has a sentence with a definite article that I would replace with an indefinite one.

'I am out to beat everybody in sight and that's just what I'm going to do,' she said when she stepped off the train in California.

This train hasn't been mentioned before (and after, actually), and it's unlikely that the train played such a huge role in her life that it's worth calling it "The Train".

So why did the author use "the", not "a"?

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    Hard to explain. I think "the train" is a definite one, in the sense that she only took one train to California. It's almost like there are extra words implied but not actually spoken: "...when she stepped off the train [in which she had travelled]...".
    – cruthers
    Commented Dec 6, 2022 at 18:30
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    @cruthers - British people also use 'the train' to mean 'the train on which someone might hypothetically be travelling', e.g. 'I like reading a book on the train'. Commented Dec 6, 2022 at 18:35
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    @MichaelHarvey, yes, that's the other theory... I think the answer below is decent in that it references both.
    – cruthers
    Commented Dec 6, 2022 at 18:40
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    Compare: When I step off a train, it makes me sad. The a determiner is for a generality. There is no BrE/AmE difference here at all.
    – Lambie
    Commented Dec 7, 2022 at 18:25

10 Answers 10

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Simply put, it's a specific train. It's the train that took her to California on a specific occasion when she made a specific declaration. So there's a time, a place, a person, and all these details help identify one particular train... you couldn't get any more specific. And when you speak about something specific, you use the definite article.

See, you could use the indefinite article in the example and say "she said [x] when she stepped off a train..." and be grammatically correct but it sounds weird because it could mean she said that every time she stepped off a train!!

Example:

  • She screamed when she got the injection. (a specific occasion on which she got an injection and screamed)
  • She screamed when she got an injection. (she would scream whenever she got an injection)

Couple that with the fact that public or mass transportation - planes, boats, trains etc - are idiomatically either used with zero article (e.g. "I went by train") or with the definite article (e.g. "I took the train"). You can say "I took a train", but that sounds like no thought or planning went into choosing it. Most public transport is scheduled and takes a specific route, so having chosen a specific route and time it is correct to refer to the one you chose.

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    The more I think about this, the more the second theory appears to be the correct one. The first theory, which I also suggested in a comment, proves too much. You can't generally go around using "the" in English on the assumption that the referenced thing is specific. "What did you have for dinner?" "The sandwich." This doesn't make any sense unless the reference is to a previously known sandwich. Of course there is a specific sandwich that I ate, but I can't just say "the" in this instance.
    – cruthers
    Commented Dec 6, 2022 at 18:54
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    @cruthers: This is tricky! Consider "What did you have for dinner?" "A sandwich, from the new deli on Main Street." "Oh? Was it good?" "Eh, so-so. The lettuce was a bit wilted." Speaker #2 can say "the lettuce" because (s)he can expect speaker #1 to understand that this means the lettuce on the aforementioned sandwich.
    – ruakh
    Commented Dec 6, 2022 at 21:49
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    @cruthers They aren't 'theories'. And don't be quick to dismiss the first point. I've added some detail and an example to show why its important that, if you use an article, it's the definite one. It isn't just idiomatic to use it with 'the' - it's a choice and its the right one.
    – Astralbee
    Commented Dec 6, 2022 at 21:51
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    @Astralbee - I'm further persuaded by your examples that your first point (which I call a theory - not sure what your big problem with that word is) is wrong in this case. "She screamed when she got the injection" without context doesn't work idiomatically. We need to have some setup to know what the injection is. In the article linked by the OP, on the other hand, there's basically no setup for identifying the train with any specificity, yet it is perfectly idiomatic - an effect that I ascribe to the second point/explanation/theory.
    – cruthers
    Commented Dec 7, 2022 at 4:56
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    @cruthers: If you look at the full paragraph in the article, it does provide — albeit somewhat obliquely — the setup needed to identify "the train" as "the train she took to California (to compete in the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles)". See my answer below. Commented Dec 7, 2022 at 12:14
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Without context, there are two possible interpretations here:

  1. The preceding context provides enough information for the reader to figure out which train is being referred to. Note that the train does not have to be explicitly mentioned before; for an analogous example, see this example dialogue by ruakh from the comments on Astralbee's answer:

    A: "What did you have for dinner?"
    B: "A sandwich, from the new deli on Main Street."
    A: "Oh? Was it good?"
    B: "Eh, so-so. The lettuce was a bit wilted."

    Here, speaker B can refer elliptically to "the lettuce", even though no lettuce has been mentioned before, since the context gives the listener enough information to understand that what B means is "the lettuce on the sandwich".

  2. "The train" is intended as a reference to the entire train network (of which there presumably is only one in that particular area) or even to a particular mode of transport in the abstract. Typical examples of such usage might be e.g.:

    A: "You don't have a car? How do you get to work?"
    B: "Usually I take the bus downtown and then walk. It's not that far."


In this case, without more context, it really could be either. But we do have the context available, so we don't have to guess. Let's just see what the whole paragraph says (highlighting mine):

At the 1932 Amateur Athletic Union track-and-field championships, Didrikson was the sole representative of the Employers Casualty Insurance Co of Dallas and, on her own, won the team award by finishing first in six events, setting five world records (although not all of them in Olympic events). She was disgusted to be allowed to compete in only three events at the Olympics that followed. It was at these Games that the 21-year-old announced to a world audience her phenomenal ability and audacious line in patter. 'I am out to beat everybody in sight and that's just what I'm going to do,' she said when she stepped off the train in California.

It's still not 100% unambiguous, but to me the context strongly suggests interpretation #1.

Specifically, the preceding context tells that the event described in the last sentence occurred at a specific time and place, namely at the 1932 Summer Olympics which — even without looking at Wikipedia — we can guess were held in California (in Los Angeles, to be specific). It's also strongly implied that the person being discussed did not live in California at the time, and so had to travel there — presumably by train (this being well before the era of ubiquitous air travel).

Thus, we can tell that "the train" in this case is short for "the train that she took to California". And that's all there really is to it.

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  • As you say, it's (probably) a journalistic way of saying "she went to California (by train); when she got there she declared (in the train station or soon thereafter) that 'I am out to beat everybody [etc]'". :-)
    – Pablo H
    Commented Dec 7, 2022 at 14:05
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    @PabloH I don't see it as particularly "journalistic". While one could be more verbose (e.g. your expansion), well-written English often employs ellipsis and implied context. You don't have to spell everything out if it can be reasonably expected that the reader will understand.
    – R.M.
    Commented Dec 7, 2022 at 16:44
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The best explanation of "a" and "the" that I have is:

  • The word "a" directs the listener to add some new object into their mental picture of what's happening.
  • The word "the" directs the listener to take their mental picture of what's happening and find an object that's already there. This may be an object that was previously mentioned, or it may be an object that can be assumed to exist based on what the listener already knows.

There are a couple of facts that might explain why the Guardian author wrote "stepped off the train in California." One possible explanation is that since the subject is in California, she must have gotten there somehow, and so the listener can assume that there exists a vehicle that took her to California. Another possible explanation is that trains are pretty common, and so we can assume that trains exist pretty much anywhere.

On the other hand, if the author had written "stepped off a train in California," they would have been directing us to add a new train into our mental picture. One hypothetical reason the author might have done this is if there were something important about that particular train, and the author were going to continue talking about the train. Another hypothetical reason could be if it were unusual or surprising that the subject stepped off a train instead of some other kind of vehicle.

All in all, it's pretty subtle. I think that in this case, the author could have written either "stepped off the train" or "stepped off a train," and it would have sounded more or less equally natural either way, and it wouldn't have made a big difference in meaning.

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There are a lot of nouns in English with different rules for whether we use definite, indefinite, or no article:

I just left:

  • church
  • school
  • class
  • home

I just left the

  • pub
  • train
  • bus
  • house

You'd use the indefinite article as an exception when showing the listener that the place you left was particularly foreign, or you want to describe it further.

As for this particular case, I think it's because the article is talking about a specific instance in time, this was the time she went to the Olympics in California, and she had just gotten off the train that she had been on to go to that event, as opposed to getting off a train home from work one random day (although you could also say she just got off the train from work...).

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    a curious observation: for all of the examples you give that use no article, there is only one possible location (potentially based on context - specifically, the time and day for "class") for each of those - for "home" vs "house" note that "home" is your own place, "house" could be your house, your friend's house, your relative's house etc
    – somebody
    Commented Dec 7, 2022 at 15:05
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    and so i guess you'd leave out the article completely when there is only one possibility for where you are - "a" usually implies it is one of many, "the" implies there are context clues that specify which exact one, no article would (could) mean that the context clues are (for the most part) unnecessary.
    – somebody
    Commented Dec 7, 2022 at 15:07
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    I think it's a bit more complicated than that, you can go to work/school/church, but you go to the gym, the pub, the supermarket, and in all cases we're referring to your single local one Commented Dec 8, 2022 at 11:04
  • good point... but i do think there may still be a slight difference - maybe you could think of it as being affiliated with one single one? for example i'm assuming most aren't tied down to a specific pub or supermarket - they go to that one simply because it's the most convenient - whereas for work/school/class/home it would be straight up weird if you turn up to a different one... church too, although the relationship is less formal, it is still generally something you're invited to ime
    – somebody
    Commented Dec 8, 2022 at 15:52
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    "I'm on my way to school" -> not just a physical place; this implies participation in the characteristic activities that take place there. "I'm on my way to the school" -> travelling to a specific location known to the listener/reader. "I'm on my way to a school" -> travelling to a generic location.
    – avid
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 0:23
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If I'm not on a train, I can't step off a train.

If I am on a train, I can step off the train.

There is no circumstance in which I can step off any train I like. It's not possible for me to be on several trains at once. Therefore, a sentence like "I stepped off a train" doesn't make much sense, even though it's perfectly grammatical.

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My Slavic students always confused the and a. I would respond with general principles, and then they would point out exceptions to the principles.

Very broadly, the refers to the thing we were already talking about and a to just any that we now happen to mention for the first time.

In stepping off the train it is the because it is the one that she happened to travel in on. However, it is also a fixed idiom: I just got off the train roughly just means I just got here (incidentally by train).

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This train hasn't been mentioned before (and after, actually), and it's unlikely that the train played such a huge role in her life that it's worth calling it "The Train".

All that the X typically means is that the speaker/writer has a specific X in mind and is expecting you to know which X he/she is talking about. This is completely subjective and controlled by the speaker.

It's normal to not know if you jumped in the middle of a conversation, are overhearing a conversation you aren't a party to, weren't paying attention to part of the conversation, or the speaker is deliberately trying to make you feel like you missed out on something (this is sometimes done to intentionally be unfriendly or assert authority).

If the speaker wants to say it doesn't matter which X, then a/an is used.

and it's unlikely that the train played such a huge role in her life that it's worth calling it "The Train".

Are you sure? The X is also used for things that the speaker assumes exists for everyone. Hence, we usually say the sun, for example, even if it wasn't specifically mentioned earlier. The train may be such a thing if there is only one train in/out of town and everyone around the area knows that.

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"The train" can be used to describe trains as a means of transport.

If you were asked a question like "How are you getting to London", you might answer with "I'm going to take the train", meaning the train service that operates between where you are and London.

So the Guardian article

'I am out to beat everybody in sight and that's just what I'm going to do,' she said when she stepped off the train in California

informs readers she arrived by train. It also carries the possibility that since she just stepped off a train, "the train" could be taken to mean "the train she just got off". While syntactically true and by no means incorrect, native speakers are unlikely to start wondering which train it was or what it looked like.

Writing "she stepped of a train" specifically references some unknown train of locomotive and carriages, not the mode of transport, and wouldn't be used in this context.

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I personally would always say stepped off "the train". To me (taking the situation to an admittedly exaggerated extent), 'stepped off a train' sounds dangerous, as if the person was on a random train. "The train" here sounds safe -- I'm on the train and I step off of it. To me, "the" makes the sentence more concrete, as the rider is nicely aboard "the train" and steps off of it.

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You can step off a train:

He broke his ankle when he stepped off a train.

It might be clear from context that the person in question has broken his ankle only once, and therefore there is a unique train that he was stepping off when he broke it, but I would not say "the train" without some further cause to say "the".

But in the passage in question, it is clear from context that in this sentence, Babe Didrickson's statement was about her participation in the 1932 Olympics. From the fact that she made this statement "as she stepped off the train in California" (emphasis added), I make several inferences:

  • The 1932 Olympics (at least the part she competed in) were held in the State of California. (This is true.)
  • She took a train from another state to a location in California.
  • When her train from another state arrived at that location in California where she had to get off the train, there were people (probably journalists as well as others) waiting for her on the platform where she was to alight from the train.
  • As she stepped onto the platform (or shortly thereafter), she made this statement.

I would consider the phrase "as she stepped off the train in California" to be misleading if any of those inferences are not true. For example, if she said this only while alighting from a train she had boarded elsewhere in California, I would consider the use of "the train" very inappropriate.

So we cannot just choose to call a train "the train" when it has not previously been mentioned. The fact that we call a train "the train" in such circumstances carries a lot of extra meaning.

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