1

My question is about expressions of the form "A of B" when uniqueness of A is guaranteed. Are the following four sentences all okay?

  1. "Is ABC a capital of a country in South America?"

  2. "Is ABC a capital of some country in South America?"

  3. "Is ABC the capital of a country in South America?"

  4. "Is ABC the capital of some country in South America?"

I suspect 3 and 4 are okay because there can be only one capital for each country. On the other hand, I suspect 1 and 2 are okay because there are many cities which can be said to be a capital of a South American country.

  • 3
    There is at least one country in South America with two capitals. – Jasper Jan 18 '15 at 22:23
  • It is my understanding that there is one de jure capital and a de facto capital, so only one capital. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jan 19 '15 at 1:43
2

All four sentences are grammatical.

Is Lima a capital of a country in South America?

Answer: Yes, as a matter of fact, it is; it's the capital of Peru.

Is Rio de Janeiro a capital of some country in South America?

Answer: No. It's a city in Brazil, but it's not the capital.

Is Quito the capital of a country in South America?

Answer: Yes, Quito is the capital of Ecuador.

Is Caracas the capital of some country in South America?

Answer: Yes, it's the capital of Venezuela.

Why does the definite article work as the first article? Because (ignoring the Bolivia's geopolitical peculiarity for a moment) each country has one capital city – the capital of the nation. Therefore, we can ask, "Is Los Angeles the capital of a country in South America?"

Why does the indefinite article work as the first article? Because you are asking about several countries at once – all the countries in South America. Therefore, we can ask, "Is Los Angeles a capital of a country in South America?"

If you narrow it down to one country, then you should use the definite article (the):

Is Concepción the capital of Chile?

Answer: No, Santiago is the capital of Chile.

unless you were asking about the unusual case of Bolivia; in that case, the indefinite article could be considered acceptable:

Is La Paz a capital of Bolivia?

Answer: Yes, it's one of the capitals; Sucre is the other.

  • I find this unidiomatic: "Is Envy Green {a color of a crayon} sold by Crayola?" No crayon has more than one color. On the other hand, "Is Envy Green a Crayola color?" is OK. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jun 26 '16 at 13:31
  • @TRomano - I'm having trouble understanding how your Envy Green color sentences apply to the A of B (or city-capital-place) sentences provided by the O.P. – J.R. Jun 26 '16 at 20:37
  • a capital of a country ~ a color of a crayon – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jun 26 '16 at 22:03
2

Yes.

To show this, can I first "translate" your question using a specific example regarding the USA? Albany is the state capital of New York. So we can ask:

Is Albany a capital of a state in the USA?
Is Albany a capital of some state in the USA?
Is Albany the capital of a state in the USA?
Is Albany the capital of some state in the USA?

The issue is not whether states have one or more capitals, but whether the speaker wishes to make a definite or indefinite reference to capital. Thus the choice between definite and indefinite article.

When you use some before a singular count noun (here, state), the speaker is referring to a particular thing (here, state) "whose identity is not determinable or unimportant [to the speaker]." (quoted from *The teacher's grammar of Engish, Cambridge U Press).

Of course, we can ask the same questions about a city that is not the capital, for instance: Buffalo. And all four forms still work. Even if both Albany and Buffalo were capitals of New York State (ie New York had two capitals) all of the sentences can be asked.

Thus, the answer is that all of the questions asked in Jisang Yoo's post may (can) be asked.

-3

Since there can be only one capitol of any country or province, you should use the in all four questions.

Does that photograph show the head of a person?
Does that photograph show the nose of a person?
Does that photograph show an ear of a person?

But more often than not, those questions would be phrased so:

Does that photograph show a person's head?
Does that photograph show a person's nose?
Does that photograph show a person's ear?

  • Bolivia, as Jasper mentions, has two capitals. – DrMoishe Pippik Jan 19 '15 at 1:16
  • 2
    @DrMoise Pippik: So this was not a question about English grammar but a question about geography? – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jan 19 '15 at 1:39

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