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I am in the process of writing a documentation for a software project. I would like to understand what would be the best article to use at the beginning of the first sentence in the description of a software library.

For example, consider the following hypothetical (first sentence):

The report presents an outline of a/the C++ class library named LIBNAME that provides a unified interface for encapsulation and automation of execution of a variety of algorithms.

What would be the best article to use in this case?

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    A possible alternative: This report presents an outline of LIBNAME, a C++ class library that provides a unified interface for encapsulation and automation of execution of a variety of algorithms. Commented May 10, 2015 at 21:54
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    I answered a similar question here: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/59725/… . In this case, 'a C++ class library named' rather than 'the C++ class library named' reads more naturally to me.'
    – amblina
    Commented Jul 22, 2015 at 12:21
  • @amblina - You might put this as an answer! (0: Commented Jul 22, 2015 at 12:25

1 Answer 1

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The is used to signal that we are talking about a specific noun mentioned previously conversation/context, or observable by those in the conversation. A/an X is used to signal that we mean any of X and not a specific X mentioned earlier.

Some nouns are considered "observable" by others by default, especially if the noun is a big thing that affects/impacts everyone, or is considered well known by everyone. Examples include the sky, the ground, etc.

Context can control what is "considered well known by everyone." In this case, your sentence is talking about a C library and I'm assuming part of the target audience for your text are likely programmers.

So, regarding "C++ class library named LIBNAME":

  • Is this a well-known standard library that any C programmer should have heard of? Such as <stdio>? Use the in that case. If you are addressing non-programmers though, they may think they have missed something, or feel left out.

  • Should the reader have heard of this library before, perhaps in earlier chapters or earlier volumes of the text? Then, use the.

  • If this is not a well-known library by your target audience, and you introducing to the reader to it, then it cannot be "mentioned previously" or "observable" and you should use a to talk about it the first time. Afterward, you use the to talk about it.

This assumes this is the first sentence that mentions LIBNAME.

Now, is your book titled "LIBNAME"? Do you have a chapter title visible above this text that says "All About LIBNAME" or similar? Some writers might consider that as "previously mentioned," and would use the based on that. That's OK too.

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