I read this passage:

The law on unfitness to plead addresses what should happen when a defendant facing criminal prosecution is unable to engage with the process because of his or her mental or physical condition. If such a defendant is found “unfit to plead”, there is not a trial in the usual way but the court adopts a different process to decide whether the defendant carried out the act in question. If it is found that they did, the court may order detention in a hospital or supervision in the community.

The legal test used to decide whether a defendant is “unfit to plead” dates from 1836 when the science of psychiatry was in its infancy. Clearly, it does not adequately reflect advances in modern psychiatric and psychological thinking.

Why the writer says The legal test .. although he just mentions "the legal test" for the first time in his passage ?

I mean he had to say a legal test used .... then after that he would say the legal test.

Or does that mean he mentioned the legal test before ??

  • It doesn't necessarily mean the test was mentioned before. Related: Uses of the definite article (the) in generic noun phrases.
    – J.R.
    May 7, 2016 at 9:44
  • Thank you its much better now to understand articles , and I think that the legal test here most likely equals the unique legal test ? Right ? May 7, 2016 at 9:53
  • 1
    @J.R. - are you sure that it's a generic phrase? The author may be referring to some 'test' that is well-known in the legal world. I wanted to slap the 'generic-noun-phrase' tag on the question, but then abstained. May 7, 2016 at 10:10
  • The legal test as distinct from the test the medical profession, say, might use. Or Aunt Martha.
    – TimR
    May 7, 2016 at 11:47
  • It's not a generic noun phrase @J.R. et al. One can't use a generic legal test in court any more than one can milk a generic cow in one's barn. May 7, 2016 at 14:12

3 Answers 3


The author uses

the legal test used to decide ...

because there is only one legal test used to decide whether a defendant is "unfit to plead";

a legal test used to decide ...

would imply that there was more than one such test. This is essentially the same reason that you use the in the President of the United States and the moon, even when this is the first time these are mentioned.

  • Why the downvote? The answer may not be complete, but I don't see how it's wrong. May 8, 2016 at 16:08
  • @PeterShor - I think it's correct; moreover, the O.P. finds it helpful and clear. You've got my upvote.
    – J.R.
    May 9, 2016 at 1:45

No, he means "the" because the use contains a (reduced) defining (or restrictive) relative clause.

The legal test used to decide ...

is exactly equivalent to

The legal test which is used to decide ...

In a use like this, where the relative clause specifies the thing being mentioned, "the" is normal, because the item is being specified as it is used.


The man I saw yesterday ...

Contrast this with a case where the relative clause (or reduced relative clase) is a non-restrictive one, which in English is in a separate breath group, and so set off in writing with a comma:

The legal test, [which is] used to determine ....

The man, who I saw yesterday ...

These examples are incoherent unless the test, and the man, have already been introduced.

  • What is the difference between The man I saw yesterday is ... and ... A man I saw yesterday is ...? Can you give more examples to differentiate between sentences have relative clauses that specified the thing being mentioned where "the" is normal and those sentences that have also relative clauses but do not specify a thing mentioned ? Thank you May 7, 2016 at 14:58
  • Good question, @GamalThomas. "A man I saw yesterday" is grammatical and I'm struggling to express the difference in meaning from "The man I saw yesterday"; but I do feel that there is a difference. "A man I saw yesterday" is not specific - he is being introduced to the discourse (and could be referred to as "the man" subsequently; but though he is characterised as somebody I saw yesterday, he is not being defined that way - I probably saw many people yesterday, and he is just one of them. "The man I saw yesterday" is being defined that way, (even though I probably saw other men).
    – Colin Fine
    May 7, 2016 at 19:19

The writer uses the legal test because he is identifying which one he is talking about at the same time that he first mentions it. It is not any legal test, it is the one that dates from 1836 when the science of psychiatry was in its infancy. This is the salient and only necessary reason that allows for the usage of the definite noun phrase here.

In addition, however, the legal test is felicitous because the writer can assume that his readers know that a definite legal test is part of the context of the law and legal precedings–just like a writer can assume that his readers know that a definite air traffic control tower is part of the context of airplanes and airports.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .