6

When you talk about any day in general, which article would you prefer in the expression "start a/the day."

Can you please explain the logic behind your choice?

I searched for some context in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, where the phrase seems to mean any day in general (at least, as it seems to me), but the article usage is different. All in all, the seems to prevail.

When she rouses me out of a dead sleep in the morning with soft kisses and she acts all playful and cuddly. I can't get enough of that. It's my favorite way to start a day.

I often start the day by puttering--watering the garden, sweeping my studio floor, putting on some inspiring music.

  • 2
    No logic, just choice. Strictly a style preference. Same meaning in most cases: any day in general. Different from the idiomatic American English "I went to the hospital" (more common) vs. "I went to a hospital". – user264 Mar 7 '13 at 8:39
  • What effect does it have on the style, then? Or is it simply a personal preference? – stillenat Mar 7 '13 at 8:51
  • 1
    I think the rule of thumb I'd suggest here is to always use "start the day"- it's idiomatic. Unless you have some specific circumstances for which you've decided that using the specifically doesn't work. But I doubt you'll run into very many of those. So stick with the. – Jim Mar 7 '13 at 9:07
3

There's no logic for deciding whether to use "to start a day" versus "to start the day" in this case, just a personal choice. It's strictly a style preference that has no effect on the meaning in most cases: any day in general. This is different from the idiomatic American English "I went to the hospital", which is much more common than "I went to a hospital".

I'd use the hospital if I'd gone to the local hospital or to the one I always go to in my city (I have three choices here in my Taiwan hometown) and a hospital if I'd gone to a hospital in a different town or country. I might also use a hospital if my visit were for reasons other than a regularly scheduled medical appointment, a trip to refill my prescriptions, or a trip to the emergency room -- as in "I went to a hospital to buy one of those because I know they sell them in every hospital in Taiwan". But this logic doesn't hold for "to start {a / the} day".

The effect that it has on style in this sentence is minimal because both sentences are the same length, and the two words sound almost the same. OTOH, maybe I'd be more inclined to use the day if I were talking particularly about today rather than every day in general. Thinking a little more about the two phrases, I believe that I prefer the sound of the day, but I'm sure that it's a personal and idiosyncratic preference rather than a logical preference.

  • Thanks for your explanation. I've been trying to understand the logic behind the article usage and get a feeling of how the meaning depends on the article. But it seems like English speakers don't always think too much about the meaning of the article, they just use what feels more collocational. So remembering thousands of collocations seems to be the way to go to become really good at a language. – stillenat Mar 7 '13 at 11:56
  • 1
    @stillenat: The more you read & listen to a language, the more familiar you become with its native-speaker knowledge, eg, which prepositions to use & when to use which article. Very often it's merely the speaker or writer's feeling at the moment. If you compare published song lyrics with what singers actually say when they sing them, you'll often find minor changes in articles, prepositions, other function words, interjections, etc. Natural language is plastic. – user264 Mar 7 '13 at 12:02
6

Let's start the day with an Ngram (which seldom tells the whole story, but is often a good place to start):

enter image description here

As you also observed, both versions are found, but start the day seems to be much more predominant and idiomatic.

What is more telling, though, is that many instances of start a day seem to be purely coincidental, as part of phrases like start a day care center or start a day or so later, which is really a different context altogether:

enter image description here

In the case of start a day in advance, for example, that really means, "start one day in advance," so the would not be appropriate in that sentence.

You did manage to find an instance where the could have been used instead of a:

It's my favorite way to start a day.

In fact, I'd say the author could have changed a to the in that context and the meaning would remain pretty much the same:

It's my favorite way to start the day.

It sounds like her favorite thing to do in the morning is putter around – but isn't that true for a lot of us?

My point, though, is that, in that context, the widespread idiomatic use of the phrase start the day lets you change the article without changing the meaning.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.