24

I apparently made a mistake in this text: http://www.learnenglish.de/games/articles/articles.html, where you have to fill in "a", "an" or "the" in the blanks.

The relevant parts are:

Looking out of {a/an/the} window I can see {a/an/the} young man. {A/An/The} young man is crossing {a/an/the} road.

I went for "The young man is crossing a road". The correct sentence is apparently: "The young man is crossing the road."

The rule says: "We use 'the' when we are talking about a particular thing, or we have already mentioned the thing we are talking about."

The road is mentioned for the first time in the text.

I can't grasp how this road is particular or more particular than "an office", "a car", etc with which the narrator and the young man interract.

Can you explain why it's incorrect to write "a road" in the sentence?

  • Related: You may want to read my answer here. – J.R. Sep 4 '15 at 0:43
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    Interestingly, I only got a 90% score after getting all the articles correct... – SeanR Sep 4 '15 at 11:37
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    It's a stupid test. The fact that we're more likely to talk about crossing the road rather than a road doesn't make the less common version "incorrect". – FumbleFingers Sep 4 '15 at 17:49

15 Answers 15

5

Based on all the information I definitely know when filling in the blanks I would argue the test is at worst wrong, at best poor. I picked 'a road' naturally and tried to justify 'the road' but couldn't in the context of the passage...

Reading the passage back as if I had received it in an e-mail or over the phone (i.e. I wasn't there or aware of the scene) either version would be fine however;

'the road' could imply:

  • a singular road view-able from the window
  • the (obviously) 'main' road view-able from the window
  • simply the road the man happened to be crossing
  • any paved pathway for cars known idiomatically as 'the road'

'a road' could imply:

  • I was being given minimal/pertinent/formal information

  • the writer was simply creating an image/setting a scene for me (which the rest of the passage certainly does)

Based on the language used until that point in the passage (and especially knowing it was a teaching aide) I would immediately question usage of 'the road' as prior knowledge of any road had not yet been established.

This would change if for example you were at this university standing next to the person as they described their surrounds and you yourself were able to clearly see out of the window (and it wouldn't matter if there was one road or many, 'the road' would make sense as you could see the young man and 'the road' in this context is the road he is on).

However, when being asked to fill in blanks, as we are here, we have to be as un-assuming and un-restrictive as possible and because of this I feel 'a road' makes more technical sense as it implies less specifics and doesn't used idioms (Although part of learning a language is learning related idioms and colloquialisms).

An interesting example where this changes: imagine the young man was in-fact crossing a bridge - I suspect 'the bridge' would be more apparently wrong to more people as we are not aware of any bridge in the scene at this moment in time. Bridges are not idiomatically known as 'the bridge' without more situational context but roads due to their ubiquity are commonly known 'the road'.

n.b. Are nearly all roads connected, at least within a country, to the extent that there is a singular road? The road?

22

Here's the rule, as you wrote it:

We use 'the' when we are talking about a particular thing

or

we have already mentioned the thing we are talking about.

Well, we haven't mentioned the thing that we are talking about, so that leaves the first one:

We use 'the' when we are talking about a particular thing

and that's what we are doing here: talking about a particular thing. In this case, this "thing" is a road. Not just any road, though – we are talking about the road the young man is crossing.

There may be 562 roads in my town, but this young man can't be crossing all of them – not all at once. He is crossing the road – that is, the road he is on.

Now it's funny that you asked about crossing the road, but you didn't ask about the young man. For the sentence could have just as easily been:

A young man is crossing the road.

In fact, all four variants are fine:

A young man is crossing a road.
A young man is crossing the road.
The young man is crossing the road.
The young man is crossing a road.

No matter how you mix and match the articles, though, the picture looks something like this:

enter image description here

When the article shifts from a to the, the reader will begin to sense: "I should know which man this is" (or, I should know which road this is). But that doesn't necessarily mean that we know the man is Freddy Kruger, or that the road is Elm Street. It can be as simple as "the road is the road the man is crossing, and the man is the man who is crossing it."

One of the first jokes children learn is:

Why did the chicken cross the road?

and it might be worth mentioning: I've never heard a child ask, "Which chicken?"

  • 4
    "and that's what we are doing here: talking about a particular thing. In this case, this "thing" is a road. Not just any road, though – we are talking about the road the young man is crossing." - this logic can be applied to any 'a' object in the text. 'The young man' is already mentioned in the text. – Hey Sep 4 '15 at 5:59
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    @Hey it's also the road specifically outside the window the speaker is looking through. (OK, there could be more than one such road but often there isn't.) – David Richerby Sep 4 '15 at 8:37
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    "Why did a chicken cross a road?" sounds very funny for some reason. – Masked Man Sep 4 '15 at 10:29
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    After all the things that already happened to that chicken you would assume it would be wiser by now. – Syren Baran Sep 4 '15 at 10:56
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    That's the standard explanation, but it doesn't pass the clown test. If I tell the story, *I looked out the window, and saw a young man beating up the clown, my audience will be asking themselves, wait, what clown is he talking about? But the real context must make that clear: it's not like the young man is fighting several clowns. – user8399 Sep 4 '15 at 18:16
21

Unfortunately, by the time I read the passage I already knew the "right" answer, so it was hard to forget it.

I ran this passage by four other members of my family. Two said "the road" without hesitating, one said "a, er, the road" and the fourth said "a road".

the test's answer is unequivocally correct

I can't quite agree with that. If this office in the university happened to open upon an intersection, or was high and had a view of a number of roads, I think you might say "crossing a road". In fact, if this was some third or fourth-floor office, to say "the road" might sound strange.

I must admit I tend towards "the road", but I think the test is worded poorly. In this case it is more of a colloquialism than strict usage.

For example, if it said "The young man picked up a dog" we would (hopefully) agree that the use of "a" was correct, since the dog hadn't been previously mentioned. To argue that it is "the road" is asking for a more sophisticated knowledge of English usage, than simply teaching the use of a/an/the.

You could almost argue that the test-setter (setting-person / examiner) unconsciously wrote "the road" drawing on their knowledge of things like "why did the chicken cross the road" (rather than "a road") and not even realize the question is ambiguous.

  • Regarding your "third or fourth-floor office", "the road" can still be applicable: the window in that office will generally only overlook a single road (corner offices excepted, of course), and thus "the road" implies that the man is crossing the road that can be seen from the window. – Doktor J Sep 6 '15 at 6:24
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    I was thinking of an office that might look over a park or plaza, and from that height could see multiple roads. – Nick Gammon Sep 6 '15 at 7:18
  • I think this answer misses the point that was made well in the other answer. In "crossing the road", "the" does not specify a particular road. Rather, it is in its entirety a verb-like idiom that describes the action of road-crossing in general or as a concept. Now, one can cross a road, which is what one usually does when "crossing the road". This could be used in specific instances to convey a certain meaning: "he crossed a road somewhere in Sumatra". It's a case of "both are valid but mean slightly different things". However, the safest option for a beginner is "the". – nitro2k01 Sep 6 '15 at 7:54
  • Why, though? He has been taught that if the road hasn't been introduced before, the correct answer is "a road". Rather, it is in its entirety a verb-like idiom that describes the action of road-crossing in general or as a concept - the test is not about idioms. – Nick Gammon Sep 6 '15 at 8:43
18

I think the test is incorrect. Either "a" or "the" is valid.

In general, we use "the" when we are talking about a specific thing, and "a" when we are talking about any instance of a thing. That is, we use "the" when we have previously identified the thing that we are talking about, or when there is only one thing that we could, in context, be talking about.

If we had previously said that there was only one road in town, or only one road visible from this window, or if we had identified the road that the young man was standing beside, etc, then we should refer to it as "the road". But in this paragraph, we have not done anything like that. There was no mention of a road before this. So I think that arguably the correct answer is "a road".

To say, "it's THE road because obviously we're referring to the one road that he is crossing" is unconvincing, because by that reasoning, we would never use the word "a". "I am sitting in AN office ..." But I am sitting in one specific office, the one right here that I am sitting in. But the correct answer is "an" and not "the" because we have not previously identified the office, and there are many possible offices that I could be sitting in. Etc.

That said, many, perhaps most, English speakers would say "the road". Frankly, I'm hard-pressed to say why. I don't think there's a good grammatical or logical reason for it. Even in the vaguest references, people often say "the road". Like it's common for parents to tell young children, "Always look both ways before crossing the street." You almost always hear this as "the street", not "a street", even though the rule presumably applies to any street and not one particular street somewhere. (Like, you should look both ways before crossing Maple Street, but feel free to run out into Broad Street without looking.)

  • 1
    I think this is the best answer, because you specifically point out that there's no good grammatical or logical reason. I think it really is just a matter of "established idiomatic preference", by which I mean we tend to repeat the form we hear most often. If you go far enough back in time, I expect most Anglophones lived in situations where there was only one "road" in the local area. So it was meaningfully the road then, and we just repeat it still today. Compare I've never lived in the city. Which city? Once, probably, you'd have meant the nearest one. But today - who cares? – FumbleFingers Sep 4 '15 at 21:08
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    This answer is very good. As I tried to explain in my answer, I think the use of "the road" is idiomatic, not part of the rules of usage of articles. If the web page had been titled "idioms.html" rather than "articles.html" then we might expect a better knowledge of idiomatic English. As David Richerby also points out, it is idiomatic usage. Thus I think it is unfair to mark down a student for the wrong idiom when the test is really about articles. It should have been worded better to avoid that trap. @Hey - it wasn't incorrect IMHO. Just slightly unusual usage. – Nick Gammon Sep 4 '15 at 21:14
15

The first thing to understand is that the test's answer is unequivocally correct. The young man in the text crosses the road, not a road: if you ask a hundred native speakers to fill that box, you'll get at least 99 the's.

Second, (and this is edited in later), that judgment isn't universal in its application: there are plenty of cases where it's correct to say, crossing a road.

But why that's so is tricky. I'll try in this answer to give an ad-hoc explanation, and maybe other users can refine or elaborate on it, in the comments or in new answers.

One thing I want to get out of the way early on is this: it's not because there's only one possible road. Even if there are two roads, and it's not clear which one the man crosses, he's still crossing the street:

Peter stood at the intersection and waited for the light. When it changed, the hurried across the street and ducked into a cafe.

I think the road or the street or the highway is a broad, generic area, like the outdoors or the countryside or the ocean. In addition to discrete roads and highways- and oceans- there's the collective road and highway and ocean, which always takes the.

Columbus sailed across the ocean; vikings pillaged the countryside; the chicken crossed the road.

  • I don't know why this answer was downvoted; I think it's a pretty good one. – J.R. Sep 4 '15 at 2:31
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    @J.R. I didn't downvote but the answer is too absolute for my taste. "Crossing the road" is not unequivocally the only correct answer: "crossing a road" isn't as good an answer but it isn't wrong, either. Likewise, it's perfectly correct to say that "Columbus sailed across an ocean": specifically, the Atlantic Ocean, rather than sailing acrosss "the ocean", meaning that he sailed around in the globally connected body of seawater comprised of the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and other oceans and seas. – David Richerby Sep 4 '15 at 8:35
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    Crossing a road is certainly not wrong, but it somehow manages to not be right either. @seanR - "Crossing" is the action, "road" is the subject... "the" is English being a dick.... it does that sometimes. – Jon Story Sep 4 '15 at 13:34
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    If a road had already been mentioned earlier in the story, then the road would be "unequivocally correct". Since the sentence about the man crossing it is the first mention of the road, I think it makes more sense to use a road. I'd even go so far as to say the road is idiomatic in this case, as it only literally makes sense in a context where a road is already identified. – talrnu Sep 4 '15 at 17:03
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    I'm a native speaker and would have answered "a road" in this case, simply because the road in question wasn't specified previously. But "the road" is not incorrect. I'd consider both to be correct in this particular situation. – fluffy Sep 5 '15 at 4:49
6

The way the question you linked to is worded, I don't feel it is proper to say that either a or the is incorrect. The definite article certainly feels more natural to a native speaker, but the indefinite is not incorrect.

Why does the definite article sound better? Because in this case, the road is a class noun (in my opinion). I think the answer here is basically the same as I gave here. In short, one "crosses the road" in the same sense that one "plays the clarinet" or "goes to the beach".

I don't agree that the is used because the young man can only cross a particular road; by that logic, the young man could never be wearing "a hat", because he must be wearing a particular hat.

I also don't think the "pure idiom" argument works, because one certainly can "cross a road". One would use that phrasing if the road itself were important or needed to be emphasized. ("What did you cross?" "A road.") Certainly if the road were being described in some way, one could "cross a two-lane road".

The use of class nouns gives us three levels of specificity, even though we only have two types of article:

1) "Cross the road" as generally used is totally unspecific; this usage is more about the act of crossing than the road itself. This could be absolutely any road.

2) "Cross a road" is still unspecific, but it is referring to a particular road--just one that has not yet been specified in context. Ask a native speaker why the chicken crossed a road and his or her first reaction will be to wonder which road.

3) "Cross the road" in the sense of referring to a particular, specified road is also available. ("I'm on the opposite sidewalk; you need to cross the road to get to me.") However, it is obviously indistinguishable from #1, and the tiny difference in the overall meaning between the two rarely (if ever?) matters.

So here we might argue that the preference of most speakers in most situations for #1 when #2 would work is idiomatic, and maybe there is an element of truth to that--we might say a clarinetist plays "the clarinet", but we wouldn't be likely to say that a constant hat-wearer wears "the hat". However, there is some meaning gained by this phrasing; it serves to deemphasize the road and, as a result, emphasize the act of crossing or the person doing the crossing. If we describe someone "crossing a road", there is a slight sense that the road in question, though unspecified, may matter in some way; describing them as "crossing the road" makes it clear that it does not.

5

Actually this is kinda weird. My first gut feeling was that "A man is crossing the road" is obviously correct. But then i thought that "A man is crossing a road" does'nt really sound wrong either. Let's compare the following

The man crosses the road. Then he goes to the library. There he sits down on a chair

with

The man crosses the road. Then he goes to a library. There he sits down on the chair.

Probably most people would consider the first paragraph correct and the second one incorrect. I think it depends on the implied context, naturally one assumes there is only one library in town (or in that part of town) and many chairs in the library. But assuming there are a lot of very small libraries around, and the one the man visits has only one chair, the second paragraph would be correct.

Similarly the following also sound correct.

The man walks to an intersection. Then he walks across a street.

I think the implication of using "a" vs "the" depends on the context. Are there many things around or only one. And to get back to the original example, there usually is only one street around (unless you are at an intersection).

  • I like your library/chair example. It works especially well with chair: the chair was pretty jarring to my ears. – J.R. Sep 4 '15 at 17:33
5

The young man is crossing the road.

We are looking at the situation from the young man's perspective. This sentence describes a situation in which he is crossing a road. There is only one road that he is crossing.

We might say

The young man is about to cross the road.

even when the young man is at a crossroads and about to cross one of the roads meeting there. It implies that either we know or the young man knows which of the roads is about to be crossed. It might even imply that we simply don't care which one will be crossed.

The young man is crossing a road.

This is a perfectly correct sentence, but it describes a different situation. It is not any different from the young man's perspective, but it is different from the speaker's perspective: apparently, the speaker hasn't been following what the young man has been doing, and now catches up with him; and apparently, the speaker is aware of multiple roads, and wants to express that the young man is crossing one of them.

Similarly, I will say

From my chair, I can touch the wall with my fingers.

even though there are four walls in my office. It is because I can only touch the nearest one, or because I don't care to point out that there are actually multiple walls in my office. I might even say this when I can actually touch more than one wall. In that case, I'm using "the wall" to refer to all of the walls collectively.

Similarly, "the road" may refer to all roads collectively.

4

In most contexts, "crossing the road" is better, purely because it's an idiomatic phrase. For example, somebody might very well begin a conversation with "On my way here, I was nearly hit by a car while I was crossing the road," in a context where there's no information about which car or which road. They'd say "hit by a car" because the car isn't uniquely defined (compare, "hit by the mayor's car"). The road also isn't uniquely defined so you'd expect "crossing a road" (compare "entering a shop") but we usually say "crossing the road" because... well, that's what we usually say.

One could also argue that, in the context of looking out of a particular window (as in the text linked from the question), it's quite likely that there's only one road the man could be crossing. In that case, one would be justified in saying "crossing the road" without needing to appeal to it being idiomatic. Similarly, you might say "I looked out of my window and saw somebody entering the shop" if there's only one shop you can see from that window.

However, "crossing a road" is not wrong and there are situations in which it might even be better, especially in situations where "a" could be replaced by "any". For example, "Did you have to cross a/any road to get here?" In other situations, it works equally well. One might argue that there's a slight difference in nuance between "I saw a man crossing a road in the distance" and "I saw a man crossing the road in the distance" but they're essentially the same. The first one suggests "I saw a road in the distance [i.e., far away]. There was a man walking from one side of it to the other." The second suggests, "I saw a man who was walking from one side of a road to the other. The road he was on was far away."

  • A slightly different example where "any" renders a road correct: "At any given time somebody, somewhere, is crossing a road". – AndyT Sep 4 '15 at 15:55
  • @AndyT Sure. I gave a perfectly valid example; you've given another one. (But note that "Somebody, somewhere, is crossing the road" is also fine.) – David Richerby Sep 4 '15 at 16:14
  • @DavidRicherby What does this idiom mean? – Hey Sep 4 '15 at 20:24
  • @Hey Exactly what it sounds like: walking from one side of a road to the other. – David Richerby Sep 4 '15 at 20:41
3

While others have focused on general idiomatic usage, let me make an argument specific to this context for why "a" is perfectly reasonable.

The whole paragraph, up until that point, had a consistent flow to it: introduce something vaguely (almost in a dream-like way) using "a," and then hone in on it using "the." For instance:

Next to the [previously introduced] desk there is a window. Looking out of the window [that we just introduced] I can see a young man. He is wearing a uniform [which I will soon describe] ...

With that flow, I would expect "a road," and that the next sentence would say something about the road. Given that we don't even know where in town this young man is, I don't see how we could expect to know what road he's crossing, and so I would stick with "a". At this point, the road is as vague a as everything else was when we were first introduced to it.

It's interesting to note that the next sentence is not about the road, which is the first time in the paragraph that the pattern was broken. So it's really a question of when the author wants to break that pattern, and how forcefully. They intended to break it with the article "the," snapping us away from the dream-like description into a specific time and place; my style would have been to be more subtle about it, by keeping the article and simply changing the content (but not linguistic style) of the sentence. Neither approach is wrong, and they have different meanings (if at a very subtle level).

2

I don't think there's a logical reason for it. It's just like "the road" acts as a set phrase. Tufty the squirrel & green cross man both taught kids how to cross the road, not a road. To pass your driving test you must learn the rules of the road.

I think we can safely say we've shown you the ropes.

  • Yes, "cross the road" is definitely idiomatic. On the other hand, you might say "I looked out of the window and I could just make out a man crossing a road in the distance." (But "crossing the road" would work just as well in that case.) – David Richerby Sep 4 '15 at 8:38
  • @BlokeDownThePub What does this set phrase mean? – Hey Sep 4 '15 at 20:27
0

From the context (looking out a window), presumably only one road is visible from the window. If multiple roads are visible, then "a road" might be appropriate. "A road" usually sounds odd in this context.

0

I think the answer here is that you're wrong because standard English grammar is wrong. Two wrongs make a right in this case.

Strictly speaking, it should be "a road" as you suspect, because the road hasn't been announced before, and there's nothing special about this particular road. Just like we say he's walking towards "a car", rather than saying "the" car, despite the fact that he's probably walking to the very specific car he has keys for.

However, in common usage, we just don't do it that way. Even in a sentence where we're clearly talking about a non-specific road, like "which way should I look first before crossing the road in England?", we use "the" over "a".

I'm going to say the answer is "because that's the way it's done". I wouldn't try to over-analyze it past that, because there's no logical answer that I can see.

  • given the test, I think the car he is walking towards is not one he has keys for! – Tom Tanner Sep 7 '15 at 10:38
  • Right, not sure what I was thinking there. But it's still a specific car to him, while being non-specific to the reader. – MichaelS Sep 7 '15 at 11:35
0

In trying to understand why "the road" is the accepted and common usage in this sentence, we must look at the adoption of the term "road". It was incorporated into the language in the same standing as a geographic feature. "Little Red Riding Hood crossed the river, went through the woods, around the mountain, over the hill, across the plains, and found herself in the desert." (Non-standard version of the tale) So, as roads became features of the landscape, their usage became aligned with that usage.

As a side note, it's interesting to think that "the road" is common when compared to the common usage of "a path".

0

Usually, we say "I am crossing THE road"

However if you say "I am crossing A road", it has a different meaning. It all depends on the context in which you're using the sentence.

If I were to say "I am crossing a road", it would usually mean that you're crossing an unknown road or a road that you don't know the name of. In any other context you should say "I am crossing the road."

The rule is: THE means a specific thing. Ex. the dog, the chair, the house. A means something in general.

If I were to say "I see a dog", it would mean I was just walking down the street and saw some unknown dog. Whereas if I were to say "I see the dog", it would mean I see a specific dog. For example I am looking for my neighbor's dog which ran away and then I see it.

I hope that makes sense :)

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