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collinsdictionary.com:
(1) 'Cat' has a final 't'.

The letter "t" is the only one in the word "cat".
Then why is it possible to use "a" here?

my variant:
(2) 'Cat' has the final 't'.

Is (2) correct?
If not , then why not?
If it is, then what is the difference between (1) and (2)?

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  • 2
    The same difference as always: a is general and the is specific. And you would have to specify how the t is specific, which I am not going to rack my brain to come up with.
    – Lambie
    Dec 7, 2023 at 1:41
  • 5
    There are more written instances of [some word] ends with the letter 'b' than there are of ...ends with a letter 'b'. But they're both fine, and I'd say almost always interchangeable. Your variant (2) isn't natural though - you can use a without the word letter, but that doesn't work with the (it has to be ...ends with the final letter 't'). Dec 7, 2023 at 1:42
  • 1
    What I find really interesting is that the Collins Dictionary uses a lower case c on cat. 'cat' has a final t. This issue came up on the Spanish site because everyone there wanted to put a word as found in the dictionary at the beginning of the sentence with a capital letter. However, dictionary entries don't have capital letters. Ergo, when explaining a word as found in a dictionary in single quote marks, you would not use a capital letter. Spanish rules say sentences start with a cap but they say nothing about a reference to a dictionary word as the first word in the sentence...
    – Lambie
    Dec 7, 2023 at 1:47
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    "Cat has a final t", "The house has a billiard room", "A monkey has a long tail", "Milan has a world-famous opera house", "My mum has a bad back". "a" is standard with "have"/"has".
    – Stuart F
    Dec 7, 2023 at 9:44
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    When speaking about the spelling of a word, you might say "The final letter of 'Cat' is a T" or "is T" but not "The final letter of cat is the T."
    – user8356
    Dec 7, 2023 at 14:57

5 Answers 5

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In short, because there are many final 't's. Bat, cat, format, splat — each has a final 't'. That means that cat's final 't' in this sense is one of many, which we express with the indefinite article.

If you're referring specifically to the 't' in "cat", then you would use the definite article:

  • "Cat" has a final 't'.
  • The 't' in "cat" is final.
  • The final 't' in "target" should be drawn in red.
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  • 2
    This is the correct answer.
    – Cerberus
    Dec 8, 2023 at 19:40
  • This also explains why “ends with the letter 't'” is correct— in that case, you're talking not about an instance of a “final letter 't'” of which there are many, you're talking about the “letter 't'” of which there is only one. It comes down to whether you're talking about a usage or the symbol itself. Dec 8, 2023 at 21:48
  • As I understood from your answer: i) We use “a” in { "cat" has a final “t” } because there are many final t’s, for example in “bat”, “cat”, “format”, etc. That is, cat's final “t” is one of many. ii) We use “the” in { The “t” in "cat" is final } because by adding the phrase { in "cat" } after “t”, we don’t mean one of many final t’s which are in “bat”, “cat”, “format”, etc. We already mean the only “t” that’s in “cat”.
    – Loviii
    Dec 9, 2023 at 2:31
  • But if we consider the sentence “The house has a cat in it”, then by the logic above, we should say “The house has the cat in it” because by adding the phrase “in it” after “cat”, we don’t mean one of many cats living in the world. We already mean the only cat living in the house. Why does the logic which helped us before, lead to the error here?
    – Loviii
    Dec 9, 2023 at 2:33
  • Because there are many cats in the world, and you haven't identified the one in the house. "a" doesn't mean that you're referring to any item arbitrarily, just that you're referring to a member of a multi-item set that you haven't yet identified. By saying "the final 't' in 'cat'," you've identified it. But with "the house has a cat in it", you've just specified that some unknown cat is in the house. If the cat is known, you can use "the", though in that case you'd invert the sentence to "The cat is in the house" (I'm not sure why that word order change happens).
    – yshavit
    Dec 9, 2023 at 9:28
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No, 1 is better. We choose between "a" and "the" based partly on context. Consider this:

The house has a cat in it. The cat is black.

There is only one cat. And in the second sentence, we use "the" because we're talking about a specific cat. But in the first sentence, we're still establishing that context. We really mean "the house has one single instance of the category 'cat' in it," so we say "a cat" for that one.

Similarly, it makes sense to say "the word cat has a t in it." Having established that context, we might use "the" if we continue to discuss that letter that we just identified: "The t is the final letter."

EDIT: As I think about this more, I was puzzled why you might think that having "only one" of something would call for "the." After all, there are plenty of times that there would be just one of something, but "the" would be wrong. "There is a tree in our yard." Just one tree, but we wouldn't say "There is the tree in our yard." (Well, unless we were pointing at it.) I think maybe the source of your confusion is about proper nouns vs common nouns. There is only one Eiffel Tower. Ignoring replicas and models, there is only one "true" one in the world, and whenever we talk about it, we're talking about that one. In Paris, you would not say "Look, an Eiffel Tower!" With proper nouns we use "the" because we've already specified the single thing we're talking about. But cats, trees, and the letter "t" are common nouns. There are many cats, trees, and letter "t"s. We would use "a" when first identifying an instance, of them, and then could use "the" after having focused on that specific instance.

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    I notice I just used "the house" in my example. This would assume that this example was taken from a context that had already identified a specific house. Or sometimes, at the start of a story, it's used to "jump into" the action as if it's already been explained. Dec 7, 2023 at 1:48
  • 1
    'cat' has the final t phoneme of bat and fat.
    – Lambie
    Dec 7, 2023 at 1:48
  • 3
    OTOH: "The t in cat is its final letter." Now we're talking about a specific "t".
    – Barmar
    Dec 7, 2023 at 15:39
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    Using 'last' in this context makes it grammatically incorrect either way, unless you were talking about the last 't' in the sentence, and you had already refined context to indicate that it was the sentence you were talking about: "In this sentence, 'cat' has the last 't'."
    – tsc_chazz
    Dec 7, 2023 at 16:38
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    You could say "The word 'cat' has the 't' last." which would mean "The 't' in 'cat' is the last letter of the word" and the 't' refers to the definitive article that is the singular 't' out of the letters in 'cat'. You could also say "The word 'cat' has a 't' last." where the 't' is an indefinite article referring to one of the infinite letter 't's that could exist. But you would not normally talk about "the last 't'." unless you are talking about a finite set of letter 't's such as "we had letters written on cardboard but the cat has stolen the last 't'".
    – MT0
    Dec 8, 2023 at 0:22
2

Remember, in the case of a definite article, you're indicating a specific thing.

If you're playing a word game in which you're making words up from a pile of letters, and you use the last letter "t" in the game to end the word "Cat", and someone asks you, "Where did the last 't' go?!?!?"

In that case, it would be perfectly accurate to say, "'Cat' has the final 't'." There may have been many 't's in the game, but that's the one you're talking about.

Otherwise, even though you're talking about the last 't' in 'cat', that 't' is a generic 't' that could be replaced with any other 't', so it wouldn't be proper to refer to it with a definite article.

1

While the word cat only has one t, there are lots of (letters) t in different words.

In this sentence, a is correct instead of the because the t in that word is just one of many used in many words.

Using the would imply that no other word is spelled with a letter t.

1

The sentences "'Cat' has a final 't.'" and "'Cat' has the final 't.'" are both plausible, but the one with "a" is much more likely, and the two sentences have different meanings.

The predicate "has a final 't'" expresses the normal, expected meaning: it is saying that there is a 't' there at the end. The sentence "'Cat' has a final 't.'" is essentially saying, "If you look at the last letter of the word 'cat,' you will notice that it is a 't.'"

On the other hand, the predicate "has the final 't'" is saying that something has that one particular 't' on the end of it. So one possible meaning of the sentence "'Cat' has the final 't.'" is, "If you look at the last letter of the word 'cat,' you will notice that it is that 't' that I mentioned a few minutes ago." Of course, that interpretation makes sense only if you really did mention a particular 't' a few minutes ago, and only if you intend to talk about that particular 't' again.

Another possible meaning of the sentence "'Cat' has the final 't.'" is, "If you look at the last letter of the word 'cat,' you will notice that it is the 't' which is the last letter of the word 'cat.'" But this is quite a strange thing to say, because it's completely unnecessary to point out that the word "cat" ends with the letter it ends with.

To summarize, the sentence "'Cat' has the final 't.'" is an unusual sentence that you would only say in unusual circumstances; the sentence "'Cat' has a final 't.'" is the correct sentence for expressing the usual meaning.

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