The explanation of using "the" (from a comment from one of threads on ell.stackexchange.com):

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.

My variant (which, as far as I understand, is correct too):

I ate at a restaurant yesterday. A dessert was delicious_.

I think the only explanation of using "a" before "dessert" is that there was more than one dessert. Am I right or maybe there are some other explanations of why we can use "a" here?

I was told in the comments below that "a dessert was delicious" is incorrect while "I had a delicious dessert" is correct. Could you tell me please why they differ in the possibility of using "a"?

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    This is all getting a bit tedious. I bought a book. The chapter on x is interesting. Hmm. Same thing. The a...a thing does not work in your example. I saw a movie yesterday. The scene with the cows was hilarious. Again. I bought a car. The car is black. And again. What is this telling you? :) I bit into an apple and spit it out. The apple was rotten. Are you sensing a pattern?
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 30 at 0:33
  • 1
    I'll point out that while "a dessert was delicious" doesn't work, "I had a delicious dessert" is perfectly fine. Commented Jan 30 at 1:05
  • @the-baby-is-you Why is "a dessert was delicious" incorrect, while "I had a delicious dessert" is correct?
    – Loviii
    Commented Jan 30 at 1:46
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    @Lovii English is flexible, so you can bend an odd sentence into having meaning (ex: "A dessert was delicious," meaning that there were multiple desserts). It's possible that someone in the history of modern English has said that sentence in conversation even. However, it's not a construction that any native speaker would use in normal conversation. It's just not right, even if you twist the scenario to try to make it so. Even if you wanted to tell people that you'd tried multiple desserts and one was good, you would likely say, "Only one dessert was delicious," rather than "A dessert." Commented Jan 30 at 3:48
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    @the-baby-is-you You gave some examples: "A dessert there was delicious.", "One of the desserts was delicious." and "A dessert was served by pouring molten chocolate on it." But I couldn't understand whether you gave them all as correct or as incorrect. Could you clarify it please?
    – Loviii
    Commented Jan 31 at 0:08

4 Answers 4


PLEASE NOTE: This answer concerns two separate utterances following on from each other: that is the context here. Those are the examples from the OP.

This is not about whether one can use a/an or the as a determiner in some sentence in English. Ergo, ngrams ain't going to give us an answer to this.

If you have an a/an determiner, things associated with it, following it or a repetition of the thing itself in the next sentence will take the. when the idea is specific to the experience or situation.

For example:

I saw a movie yesterday. The movie was great.
I went to a play last night. The stage settings were wonderful.

This is a typical speech and written pattern in English.

BUT we can also do this:
I went to a play last night. A play is a wonderful thing to see.
I went to a restaurant yesterday. I had a wonderful dessert!

The OP's variant is discursively incorrect. Why? Because you ate at a restaurant (generality) and you had a dessert (generality) there. So what happens in actual specific utterance is this:

I ate at a restaurant yesterday. And the dessert was very good.

The dessert is specific to that experience and therfore cannot be "a dessert".

BUT compare that to this:

I ate at a restaurant yesterday. And I had a delicious dessert.

[two generalities]

For those who need further proof:

Major Uses of 'the' "In broad outline, the major uses of the are the following:

  1. for something previously mentioned: yesterday I read a book . . . the book was about space travel (This is the anaphoric, or 'pointing back,' function of the definite article);

definite article grammar_The Thought Company

  • Is this evidence-based?
    – Astralbee
    Commented Jan 31 at 8:56
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    Agree that this is subtle, and mostly 'it just sounds wrong'. You could use 'A dessert' in a well-formed sentence, e.g. "I ate at a restaurant. A dessert was dropped on my head"
    – JeffUK
    Commented Jan 31 at 10:14
  • “And the dessert was delicious”. I think "a" + adjective + noun is its own thing. Compare "It was a great play" and "The play was great" in both instances the thing being mentioned is identifiable and the listener understands which play the speaker is referring to. P.S Not my downvote even if I may belong to the uninitiated!
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jan 31 at 10:15
  • @JeffUK Yes, I gave an example of what you said. "I ate at a restaurant yesterday. And I had a delicious dessert.", which is a genarality.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 31 at 15:47
  • @Mari-LouA You are missing my point: The a/an in English in one sentence is usually followed by a "the" thing in the second. Again: "I went to a great play. The play was so interesting." Of course. My point is very specific. It is not about using a/an versus the. in separate sentences. It is about using a/an followed by another sentence semantically linked to it.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 31 at 15:50

In the example you have given of the two sentences "dessert" is specific (idiomatically so) — hence it takes the definite article — "THE".

Had the waiter asked you "Would you like a dessert?" that would have been correct — because it would not have been any specific dessert.

When he/she came to collect your empty plate, they may have said "Did you enjoy the dessert?" — because by then it would have become specific.

  • No, this is about a/an followed by another sentence. Not whether individual sentences take a/an or the. And even in your example where the "the" is separated in time from the a/an, it becomes "the dessert" when the waiter comes back and asks his question.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 31 at 15:54

Google Ngram confirms the version with the definite article (the dessert was) is preferred with the countable usage of dessert

enter image description here.

The same is true for most countable nouns

enter image description here

This is because in stories, novels, recounts, accounts, anecdotes etc. the identity of the thing mentioned is clear to both the speaker and the listener.

The definite article clarifies which dessert and restaurant the speaker is referring to; the one (dessert) that was eaten in the restaurant which the speaker went to.

  • This is not the question. The question concerns two sentences, one following another and why the determiner "a" doesn't work in a context like this: I ate at a restaurant yesterday. A dessert was delicious. [buzzer]. The context is two sentences, not a single sentence. Ergo, ngram does not work for this case. And I believe I gave enough examples of contexts like this in my answer and it surprises me that you didn't understand the point of my answer.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 31 at 16:01
  • Misleading use of ngrams. They are only really meaningful if you can be sure the data isn't fragmented and is reasonably clean and balanced when it comes to phrases.
    – Astralbee
    Commented Jan 31 at 17:14
  • @Astralbee at least I didn't get the spelling wrong. (I know, typos happen to every one) However, the same observation you made are valid for your ngram results. "For dessert" and "For a dessert" doesn't match the OP's example, and bears little to no relevance to the situation described in the original sentence.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jan 31 at 18:15

'Desert' can be used as both the name of a group of sweet foods and the name of a course in a meal. When it is the former, an article is used; when it is the latter, it usually isn't.

Notice this ngram, which compares "for dessert" with "for a dessert". It shows that it is most common without an article. We would normally say that a particular food item is "for desert" to mean it is being served as that course.

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    But isn't the word with one 's' only for dry places? Commented Jan 31 at 9:25
  • books.google.com/ngrams/… which seeems to confirm your idea but...
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jan 31 at 10:22
  • comparing "a dessert" with "the dessert" which is the crux of the question we see that the definite article (the) has the upperhand books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jan 31 at 10:23
  • No offense, but I don't think you should be answering this if you can't distinguish desert from dessert.
    – paddotk
    Commented Jan 31 at 10:50
  • @Mari-LouA No, it is not about comparing a and the. It is about more than one utterance where the a item becomes a the item. How many times or ways can one (me) say this idea?
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 31 at 15:57

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