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I've read that when a prepositional phrase comes after a noun, defining it, the noun should take the definite article:

She was given the responsibility of taking care of her sister.

I have the advantage of being a year older.

However, it seems that this depends on the noun in question. The indefinite article is much preferred in the examples below, right?

She has a habit of leaving things around the house.

We have a tradition of celebrating it on the first Monday of the month.

Can anyone direct me to some grammar rules regarding this? If there are any.

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    OR She was given responsibility for taking care of her sister, with no article. So maybe it depends on the preposition itself, as well as the noun. But note this NGram, showing that developed the habit of... is in fact somewhat more common in published writing than developed a habit of... Oct 6, 2023 at 11:32
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    Yea, I agree about the preposition mattering too. I'm enjoying these Ngram things. Would've thought "a habit of" was way more popular.
    – Brooh
    Oct 6, 2023 at 11:50
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    I must admit that was my first thought too - but maybe I was influenced by having already read The indefinite article is much preferred in the examples below before actually considering your examples. I will admit I was a bit mischievous with my NGram though - I already expected that result because I deliberately chose to switch from your having A habit to my developed THE habit. (For your exact context, A is indeed more common than THE! :) Oct 6, 2023 at 11:57
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    ...just don't ask me how I knew "develop" would be more likely with THE. It's definitely true, both because that's what I expected to find AND because that's what the NGram confirmed. But I've no idea why. Oct 6, 2023 at 11:59
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    I don't think we actually found an answer to be honest. Or, we didn't find any rules at play anyway.
    – Brooh
    Oct 6, 2023 at 13:38

2 Answers 2

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Consider:

  1. I have a habit of biting my nails when I’m nervous.
  2. I have the habit of biting my nails when I’m nervous.

The key in both examples lies in the intent of the sentence. Clearly, the only difference is the choice of article. The rules of grammar that govern the use of articles can be not only prescriptive, but also descriptive. The choice of article, in some circumstances, can be what determines the meaning of the sentence.

In example 1, there is a collection of habits in which one (a) is biting my nails. We can use our understanding of the use of articles to determine that the narrator’s intent is to describe a habit among many habits (either his own or a more general collection of habits).

In example 2, the specific habit of biting one’s nails is a habit that exists among a collection of people who have this habit of which I am one. The choice of the definitive article is used to define the entire phrase (habit of biting my nails) as specifically important. In this context, the particular habit is one that exists among many people with this habit, not among many habits.

In the context of an example in the question, it’s not quite as neat, but:

She was given the responsibility of taking care of her sister.

  • She was given a responsibility to take care of her sister.
  • She was given a responsibility to clean her room.
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When what is been written/Spoken about (the noun) is known/definite. Eg: The boy who came here is my brother. 'The' signals that the noun is definite, that it refers to a particular member of a group

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  • As it’s currently written, your answer is unclear. Please edit to add additional details that will help others understand how this addresses the question asked. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Nov 12, 2023 at 20:30
  • What you say is true, but I don't see how it answers the question about when to use "a/an" or "the" before a noun modified by a prepositional phrase. How would someone know that "a habit of watering the lawn" and "the responsibility of watering the lawn" are correct grammar while "a responsibility of watering the lawn" is incorrect.
    – gotube
    Nov 13, 2023 at 7:26

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