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I was reading a text at lang-8 and it got me wondering:

This time of the year, when the weather has finally changed from warm and pleasant to cold and windy, is a perfect time to think about new items for interior decoration.

Would this use of the indefinite article be okay, or is it better to use the:

This time of the year, when the weather has finally changed from warm and pleasant to cold and windy, is the perfect time to think about new items for interior decoration.

According to Google Ngram, "it's the perfect time" is used twice as often as "it's a perfect time", but that tells me nothing about the possible nuances of meaning.. Curiously, according to the Ngram, both expressions sprang into existence in the second half of the 20th century.

Is it that with "a perfect time" we allow that other "perfect times" will occur later or have occurred before, while with "the perfect time" we insist on the absolute uniqueness of this "time"?

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    I think you're justified in using the indefinite article if you can say that qualification of some time as "perfect" is seasonal. For instance, next year there will be another perfect time like this one, so "now" is one of those times that are the "local extremum" as far as suitability for some purpose is concerned. – Victor Bazarov Nov 10 '15 at 18:42
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    I think "a" softens the speaker's statement to a gentle suggestion that you should feel free to ignore. A rainy, dull gray day: the perfect time to clean out that cluttered closet! So, stop moping about the weather, and get to it! A rainy, dull gray day: a perfect time to clean out that cluttered closet! Why not consider doing so? Feeling productive will make you feel better! In any case, "the" is a little more insistent that there are not other perfect times. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 10 '15 at 18:56
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    Yeah, the difference is the same as "the perfect match for me" vs "a perfect match for me". The former implies no one else is a perfect match, while the latter doesnt necessarily imply that. – Senjougahara Hitagi Nov 10 '15 at 21:33
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    @TRomano - thank you! You might post this as an answer! – CowperKettle Nov 14 '15 at 9:02
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    @TRomano That's 2009. Google has lots of metadata errors, so you always have to check when antedating. That one is mistakenly tagged as 1929. – snailcar Nov 14 '15 at 9:11
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+50

One way of thinking about this relates to the definition of "perfect".

Is it that with "a perfect time" we allow that other "perfect times" will occur later or have occured[sic] before, while with "the perfect time" we insist on the absolute uniqueness of this "time"?

This insight is very good, and stems from how the user used the word "perfect". Strictly speaking, perfection is a single state at which something cannot be improved any further, so having multiple perfect states is a contradiction of terms, or at least, possibly improper use of the word. Having multiple states that are equally good (as in "perfect times") but all labeled "perfect" reveals perhaps a tendency for hyperbole or exaggeration.

Of course, the use of hyperbole may also be intentional, utilizing the power of words and their attached emotions to achieve some sort of leverage. Willfully ignoring the singularity of perfection in order to use the stronger positive aspect of the word perfect (as compared to less absolute synonyms like excellent, good, and so on) may be seen as a ploy to get the target of the utterance to buy / spend / consume / generally give their money to the speaker. :)

  • -1 I have a perfect black pearl, and so does Jane. Yesterday was the perfect day for swimming--but then so is today. Neither of the following sentences exhibits hyperbole, exaggeration, contradiction, et al. – user20792 Dec 2 '15 at 15:15
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In addition to the comments and considering that "a perfect" versus "the perfect" are talked with respect to time, one important thing to keep in mind is that we generally cannot predict the future, so we cannot be certain that circumstances are never going to repeat themselves or even be such as to provide a better opportunity than one to which we are referring.

It is only to express the certainty that some condition shall never occur again, we use "the" with "perfect time". The uncertainty is likely to cause us to suppose (or hope) that another opportunity shall present itself eventually, and then we use "a perfect time".

  • The downvote is not mine. It seems that someone, hopefully a native speaker, disagreed with your answer, but decided not to explain why. Articles will continue to bug me always.. – CowperKettle Nov 13 '15 at 13:57
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    @CopperKettle, {shrug} We simply learn to live with it... – Victor Bazarov Nov 13 '15 at 14:21
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    I am the native speaker who downvoted it. The concept of the answer is wrong, and the sentence It is only to express the certainty that some condition shall never occur again, we use "the" with "perfect time" is perfect bunk. I also downvoted the other two answers and am working on my own. – user20792 Nov 14 '15 at 3:23
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    Good luck to you! – Victor Bazarov Nov 14 '15 at 12:24
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This time of the year, when the weather has finally changed from warm and pleasant to cold and windy, it's a perfect time to think about new items for interior decoration.

First off, the sentence doesn't sound correct grammatically. I think there should be no commas before and after the when-clause. Besides, it of it's hould be omitted and only "is" should be kept.

Second, the use of the indefinite article "a" before perfect time sounds OK as this time of the year i.e. when the weather has finally hanged from warm and pleasant to cold and windy" is not known to the listener.

On the other hand, if the listener already knows the time of the year you are referring to, then you can use the definite article before perfect time. Obviously, you will not need to define this time of the year. You will simply say the following,:

"This time of the year is the perfect time to think about new items for interior decoration.

  • -1 Your statements about the time of year being known or unknown to the listener are irrelevant. This condition is not the only thing that decides our choice of article. A says I want to read a book tonight when I get home. A may be referring to a specific book and B may already know which book that is. In addition, the listener almost assuredly does know whether the weather outside is turning into autumn. – user20792 Dec 2 '15 at 15:21
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  1. Completely suited for a particular purpose or situation - "the perfect time"
  2. Completely corresponding to a standard or type - "a perfect time"

(from thefreedictionary.com)

  • This does not address the OP's questions. These definitions are not mutually exclusive. There are also other definitions that apply, i.e., "Excellent and delightful in all respects a perfect day" – user20792 Dec 2 '15 at 15:07
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It seems decorous, and I hope felicitous to say that

The definite article allows for the possibility of exclusivity without holding to it, whereas the indefinite article does not attempt this claim.

Autumn is the perfect time to think about redecorating, but then so is spring.

For an extended, in fact overlong discussion, see this blog post.

  • A nice blog post! It would be great to have at least part of it in the answer. – CowperKettle Dec 2 '15 at 16:28

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