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Could you help me please with a sentence:

When you called me I was reading a book. You know, I was reading a/the book because I had nothing to do.

Is it grammatical within this context to say "a book" in the second sentence instead of "the book" like a way of saying what I was reading - a book, rather than which book?

In other words, can the second part mean that "At the moment you called me I was reading a book because..."

and not "Always when I had nothing to do I was reading a book" ?

Thanks.

1

I'd say it is. We still don't care about the book itself, just the act of reading it, so we can keep leaving the book "unspecified". It also reads nicer - "reading a book" is a fairly natural phrase, while "reading the book" brings attention to the book itself.

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When you called me I was reading a book. You know, I was reading a book because I had nothing to do.

is OK as long as a specific book is not implied.
If you were referring to a specific book, you could use the, but I would prefer that, as it points back at the book already mentioned:

When you called me I was reading a book. You know, I was reading that book because I had nothing to do.

Present tense (as reported speech) applies to this phrase. It could be the case every time the person calls, but we do not know in this context.

  • Using the in the second sentence points back to the book in the first sentence just as that does. Well, actually that means "you know which book, the one near you", while the means "you know which book." So both are definite references to book and since there is no other book in the context than the one in the first sentence, the second book refers back to the first with either that or the, although this ("you know which book, the one near me") is perhaps more likely than that. – user6951 Jan 19 '15 at 5:33
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    @δοῦλος It's an interesting observation that this or that is more likely than the in the second situation. I understand the demonstrative pronouns here not to indicate nearness, but to clearly override the “non-specific a” of the first sentence. If I can figure out a concise way to do it, I’ll try to explain this to my answer. – Ben Kovitz Jan 19 '15 at 8:38
  • @BenKovitz I didn't say 'this/that' would be more likely than 'the'. I said 'the', like 'that' refers to book of the first sentence. I also said 'this' would be more likely than 'that' in this context. – user6951 Jan 19 '15 at 20:08
  • @δοῦλος "this book" is better if the book is seen at the time of the statements. But the statements also could be made after the fact (maybe they met later on and relating the past events), in which case "that book" is fine. – user3169 Jan 19 '15 at 20:16
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When you called me I was reading a book. You know, I was reading a/the book because I had nothing to do.

Yes, it is grammatical to refer to book with a in the second sentence.

Second, When you called me can refer to your friend calling you either while you are reading (say, in the evening), or it could be later, as in the next day. I will answer according to the first interpretation, but the principles work the same.

In English, nouns are referred to as definite/indefinite and as specific/non-specific. (We can also use articles to refer to generic nouns, but that is not the case here.)

Book in the first sentence refers to a specific book, but you are making an indefinite reference to it. It is specific, because you are referring to a specific book (the one you were reading when your friend called). You know which book it is, because you have been reading it. But you are also making an indefinite reference to it, either because you do not assume your listener knows which book you are referring to, or because it is not important to you to refer to it as definite. So, a in the first sentence holds or signifies all that meaning (an indefinite but specific reference).

(Now for a little tangent: On the other hand, if you assumed your listener knew which book you were reading, you could have made a definite reference to it and said the book. Well, how could the listener possibly know which book you are referring to if you don't mention the title when he calls (all you say is 'When you called me I was reading the book'.) You could assume your friend can identify which book because of shared knowledge (example: you told your friend earlier in the day which book you would be reading. Or it may be Wednesday evening, and your friend knows that each Wednesday evening you read from a specific book and he knows which one, definite). So the signals a definite, specific reference. Now, to get back on topic.

In the second sentence you use a to mark for an indefinite book and a non-specific book. You are no longer referring to the book you were reading when your friend called, as you did in the first sentence, but to a non-specific book; it could be any book. The meaning of the verb read does change in any way. It still refers to actual reading you were doing. In fact, by using the progressive aspect (reading) you are referring to an indefinite period of time that includes the exact moment your friend called. As for the article, this time a indicates an indefinite, non-specific reference.

So, yes, such a reference can mean

At the moment you called me I was reading a book because..."

Of course, if you had said the book in the second sentence, you are making a definite, specific reference, one that refers to the book of the first sentence.

--

You can even make this indefinite, non-specific reference after identifying the definite book you were reading, rather than just assuming your friend knows which one. Consider:

A: 'When you called me I was reading a book.' [indefinite, specific reference]

B: 'Oh really, which one?'

A: 'It's one I just bought. It's called Thirty-one Nights in the Sahara Desert with the Duke of Kent.'

After a pause, you add:

A: 'You know, I was reading a book because I had nothing to do.' [indefinite, non-specific reference]

We are back to that indefinite, non-specific reference. You are no longer referring to any specific book. And you are therefore also not referring to a definite book. (If you make a definite reference to something, it is automatically a specific reference.) But, as I hope I have shown, when you make an indefinite reference to something, it can either be specific (your first sentence) or non-specific (your second sentence).

  • I think the example in the last section, where you go back to a in A’s third utterance, is especially illuminating. – Ben Kovitz Jan 19 '15 at 8:14
  • This is of secondary importance, but can you explain a little more about how When you called me can refer to a time later than when the speaker was reading the book? I figure you can’t mean “When you called me Monday, I was reading a book Sunday”, but that’s the best interpretation I’ve come up with so far. – Ben Kovitz Jan 19 '15 at 8:26
  • @BenKovitz Yeah, that's what I meant. Just sometime other (later) than when the speaker reading. – user6951 Jan 19 '15 at 20:00
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If the example used the indefinite article in both places, I would interpret that as saying that when the writer has nothing else to do he arbitrarily selects some book and reads it. If it used the definite article, I would interpret as saying that the writer has a particular book he picks up when he has nothing else to do.

More generally, I would suggest that a definite article is appropriate in cases where the stated reason would be sufficient to compel the selection of a particular item over all others, and an indefinite article in cases where the selection of the particular item was a consequence of either arbitrary chance, or other deliberate but unstated factors.

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Why it’s correct

Yes, a is grammatically correct there.

Here's why. A person can hear the phrase reading a book in two ways:

(1) introducing a new book into the conversation, which you will refer to later;

(2) the abstract concept of “reading a book” in which the specific book is abstracted out, and cannot be referred to.

Here’s an example of (1):

I just started reading a book. The book is titled Thirty Days in the Samarkand Desert with the Duchess of Kent.

In this example, book in the second sentence refers to the book introduced in the first sentence, so it must be preceded by the.

Here’s an example of (2):

Reading a book can be very relaxing. Sometimes I read a book in the bathtub.

In this example, the first sentence does not introduce a specific book into the conversation. So, the second sentence could not refer back to it with the. The second sentence must use a.

In your example, even though you were reading a specific book, you mean the abstract sense of reading a book in both sentences. So, you must use a. (As you probably know, in English there is no way to avoid specifying which form of reference you mean when using a noun; you must commit to one, even if it’s not important, just as you must specify the tense of a verb even when time is not important.)

If you said the in the second sentence, then the meaning would be: “I picked this specific book to relieve my boredom.” That requires explanation, so you would probably continue by saying which book it was and why you thought it was a good choice for relieving boredom.

Yes, the choice of the article in the second sentence can retroactively affect the listener’s understanding of reading a book in the first sentence.

More-natural second sentences

The following might shed some more light on how to understand articles in this situation.

If you meant sense (1), referring specifically to the book in the second sentence, then it’s a little more natural to say:

When you called me, I was reading a book. You know, I was reading this/that book because I had nothing to do.

Both this and that mean the same thing here: they mean the same as the!* They both mean “the book already mentioned”. The reason a demonstrative pronoun is more natural here is because the assumes that the listener understood reading a book in the first sentence in sense (1)—an unwarranted assumption, since it’s ambiguous. Demonstrative pronouns can function as “stronger” versions of the. It’s more natural to use a demonstrative pronoun because a listener will understand it correctly even if the listener heard the first sentence in sense (2). The demonstrative pronoun can override the abstractness of sense (2).

Here’s another example of overriding the abstract sense of the indefinite article:

Lunchtime here at the elementary school is like feeding an army. And that army is ready for war!

The phrase “feeding an army” is a cliché, not to be taken literally; a listener doesn’t ordinarily hear it as introducing an army into the conversation that could be referred to later. That in the second sentence announces that, contrary to ordinary expectations, you want to continue the simile—by referring to the army. The army would still be grammatical, but would likely cause the listener a moment of disorientation—“Huh? What army?”—before understanding the playful intent.

Back to your example, if you meant sense (2), the abstract idea of reading a book with no intention to refer to the specific book, then you could also say:

When you called me, I was reading a book. You know, I was reading because I had nothing to do.

This better agrees with the abstract meaning, because you really don’t mention the book again. The second time, reading is enough to imply that you mean reading that book.

Repeating reading a book is not unnatural, though. You’d say it especially if you wanted to emphasize book-reading—as opposed to, say, reading the side of a cereal box, or reading magazines or blogs.


Actually, this and that mean the same thing here only if the book isn’t nearby. If the book is close enough to gesture to, then (of course) this means it’s close and that means it’s further away. This distracts from the point about articles, so let’s assume that you called the person back and you’re talking on the phone.

  • -1 esp: In your example, even though you were reading a specific book, I assume that you mean the abstract sense of reading a book in both sentences. I've no idea what you mean by abstract sense of reading. Whatever it might be, it doesn't mean that in the OP's first sentence. – user6951 Jan 19 '15 at 7:36
  • It means the second of the two senses I described, the one starting with “the abstract concept of…” – Ben Kovitz Jan 19 '15 at 7:40
  • Yes, but since that sentence ends with "in which the specific book is abstracted out, and cannot be referred to", it is not supplying correct information (ie it is incorrect). The first sentence does refer to a specific book. – user6951 Jan 19 '15 at 7:43
  • @δοῦλος See the last three paragraphs. – Ben Kovitz Jan 19 '15 at 7:46
  • Yeah, I've read your answer and written mine. I am off to sleep now. – user6951 Jan 19 '15 at 7:53

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