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Let me start with a few examples (I wrote all of them myself so they might have a few mistakes in them):

  • Before you begin the questioning part of the procedure, make sure that the interviewee feels calm.

  • However, start-ups can be a bit different in their structure. Having workers that are passionate about a product or an idea that the start-up develops allows you to have diffused boundaries and roles with fewer detriments and certain benefits to balance them out.

  • If a reading task is conceptually harder and there are increased cognitive demands on the reader, then increasing the font size might lead to better outcomes.

  • The therapist should have a separate social media account or/and a phone number to give to their clients.

Now what would happen with these sentences semantically, if I changed the highlighted articles there (switched them with 'a')? For example,

  • Before you begin the questioning part of the procedure, make sure that an interviewee feels calm.

Would it ever work? Would it work in other examples? These definite articles, as I understand, are used to pinpoint 'your average guy' (like a concept), or anyone who might be in these circumstances (any interviewee). In some cases, like in the therapist example, I feel that both can work interchangeably with no difference in meaning. But then with some other examples I'm not that sure. For example, the reader and also the interviewee examples. It seems to me that without 'the' it would detach the reader from the text that is being mentioned (or the interviewee from the process) - these do no seem that equivalent. I can understand them both, but the 'the' ones sound better. Not sure why and I'm probably wrong anyway.

Can someone help me understand how my sentences would differ in terms of their meaning if I changed every highlighted article to 'a'? Would some of them be just wrong?

I have a suspicion that my sentences might fall under different rules and categories, so sorry about bunching them all together. But for me, in a way, they all refer to the same idea - these are generic/non-specific nouns that use the definite article.

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  • I would use the definite article for 'the person being interviewed at the time', 'the start-up in question' and 'the reader undertaking the task'. I think either would be possible in the 'therapist' example. Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 10:50
  • @KateBunting that's how I think about it. I usually add these implied clauses but I cannot find a rule to 'reassure' myself that that's correct and calm down. I feel like it just sounds better but I can't always explain why (I tried giving my explanation above but it's more of a hunch based on nothing really), so that's why I wanted to hear how natives would understand these sentences. So is 'a' totally incorrect or just not quite natural? Would you be confused if you heard these sentences with the indefinite article?
    – August99
    Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 11:21
  • No, the indefinite article wouldn't be wrong or confusing. I think most people would use 'the' because it refers to a particular individual, though an unspecified one. Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 11:52
  • @KateBunting , Thank you very much. This is the most confusing part of English to me. The moment where both articles are fine - I start overthinking it until my brain melts. When it comes to articles - everyone stresses how important it is to use 'the right one' so much that when the is no 'the right one' - I compulsively try to find a rule that would justify using one or the other.
    – August99
    Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 12:22
  • But yeah, sorry for venting. You are not my therapist. Thanks again!
    – August99
    Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 12:26

1 Answer 1

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In general, if you have already implied a single thing and the reader understands that the new item refers to that specific thing, then the new item should take a definite determiner ("the", "your", "that", etc.).

Before you begin the questioning part of the procedure, make sure that the interviewee feels calm.

I would not use "an interviewee" here. The first part of the sentence mentions "the procedure", so presumably there is only one interviewee, and the reader should be able to infer that it is the one who is going through the procedure. That is pretty specific, so I would say "the interviewee". (Of course, this might change depending on context, for example if there were multiple interviewees. I'm doing my best to understand your meaning without much context.)

However, start-ups can be a bit different in their structure. Having workers that are passionate about a product or an idea that the start-up develops allows you to have diffused boundaries and roles with fewer detriments and certain benefits to balance them out.

No specific startup is mentioned in the first sentence, but the later discussion ("allows you to have . . .") suggests that the writer is referring to a single one. Therefore, I think that this isn't a good sentence. I'd probably recommend "your" instead of an article.

If a reading task is conceptually harder and there are increased cognitive demands on the reader, then increasing the font size might lead to better outcomes.

No specific reader has been mentioned, but one might be implied by the first part of the sentence ("a reading task"). Therefore, either "the" or "a" is possible.

The therapist should have a separate social media account or/and a phone number to give to their clients.

Without any context (e.g., a mention of a therapist in a previous sentence), "a" would be better here. However, "the" is appropriate if you're talking about a generic therapist; in that case, "the" and "a" produce equivalent sentences. (However, "a" would be more common.)

By the way, a noun rapidly becomes less generic once it is restricted. Your last example is the only one that I might consider to include a truly generic noun.

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  • Thank you. That's clear. But it's going to take a while before I start making these judgements quickly. I just don't really know how to make these things automatic and thinking about them every time gives me a headache. I sometimes get stuck on an article for minutes. So by restricting noun to a specific set of cricumstances - kind of justifies using 'the', right?
    – August99
    Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 16:26
  • So by defining a thing (either directly or not) makes it specific even if does not mean a particular thing/person? Just a process/or a context/or a set of circumstances that describe an interviewee make him 'the' interviewee of that scenario?
    – August99
    Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 16:34
  • It's like that sign "Don't distract the workers" (or "Don't distract the driver"). This is more of a direct reference to some 'real' men/or women who are working in that place where the sign is. But an imaginary scenario or a process kind of create the same restricting point of reference (the interviewee who will be sitting in front of you)? I am thinking about right? I don't know if I am explaining it clearly, sorry
    – August99
    Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 16:39
  • @August99 Yes, I think that you basically have it. The key factor is whether the reader is likely to interpret the item as specific or not, and that can be explicit or implicit. Of course there are exceptions, subtleties, ambiguities, etc. This is one of the more difficult aspects of English, and even native speakers sometimes use the wrong article. Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 18:09
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    For example: "I ate at a restaurant yesterday. The dessert was delicious." Even though the first sentence didn't mention any dessert, it should be clear to the reader that I'm talking about the dessert at that restaurant. Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 18:15

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