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As an ESL learner, I learned that we use an indefinite article a/an for some unspecified objects, while the for specific things. And I encountered the following sentence that asks me to choose the right article. "We had the/a customer in the other day who wanted to buy chocolate-covered ants." First, I thought it should be the, since the speaker is mentioning about the specific person who wanted to buy chocolate-covered ants. But the correct answer is "a", so I want to ask in what sense it is an unspecified person.

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    Another stupid test! We'd need far more context to know whether the definite or indefinite article is more likely. And it really is a case of what's likely in any given specific context. I don't think the "less common" choice would ever actually be "incorrect", but without a full context the question is just pointless. Mar 21, 2023 at 13:27

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We also use the indefinite article when a person or thing is mentioned for the first time. The speaker refers to 'a customer' (a person they didn't know) and then tells us something about them. If they need to mention that person again, they might say "Do you remember the customer who wanted to buy ants? S/he came in again today to ask if we had them in stock yet."

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  • Thank you very much! I have also one more question pertinent to this. Is it then right to say "I am looking for a person who gave me this."?
    – LEARNINGD
    Mar 21, 2023 at 10:40
  • I know what you mean, but I don't really think "for the first time" is necessarily a good general piece of advice - you can see how it has inspired the OP to ask about "...a person who gave me this".
    – stangdon
    Mar 21, 2023 at 11:41
  • @stangdon I guess it should have been "the person." If possible, could you please let me know the difference between the two?
    – LEARNINGD
    Mar 21, 2023 at 12:27
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    Yes, it should be 'the person', because, if they have given something to you, you have some previous knowledge of them. Mar 21, 2023 at 13:12
  • Obviously the speaker knows which customer he's talking about, or he wouldn't be able to mention them in the first place. That in and of itself licenses the speaker to use the even if he knows perfectly well that his audience know nothing about that customer or his request (using the rather than a in that situation is a perfectly natural way for the speaker to emphasize how "memorable" that customer was to him). Mar 21, 2023 at 13:33

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