How can you know when to use a and when to use the? I do not know how to do and my teacher only says that one is here and one isn't. What does this mean? I want to know how to use "a" and "the" when talking about an object. Thank you.

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    You have a great answer below and note that there are many related articles and references on the internet such as this one and this one. I think they will be helpful to you, especially the second link. – user24743 May 16 '16 at 5:10

The words "a" and "the" mean two very different things when referring to objects.

"The car drove silently down the road because it is electric."

In this sentence "the car" refers to a specific car. There is once specific car that is electric and that drove silently down the road.

A car drove loudly down the road because it had a large gasoline engine."

In this sentence "a car" means any car. A non-specific car drove loudly down the road.

Imagine you are sitting on a park bench with a friend. You see a car and want to comment on it. You would say "the car" or "that car" because you are referring to a specific car. Now let’s say you want to make a general comment about cars. You would say "a car" or "cars" because you are speaking generally, not specifically.

Look! The car that just drove past is super cool!

A car has four wheels and is usually powered by an internal combustion engine that runs on gasoline.

When your teacher (unclearly) corrects you by saying "one is here and one isn’t," she means that when you say "the car" it means you are talking about a specific car that exists as opposed to the general "a car" which refers to all cars or the idea of a car.

  • The car in A car drove loudly down the road because it had a large gasoline engine is a specific car. What it is not, is definite. – Alan Carmack May 16 '16 at 18:00
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    'I just married a British woman' is talking about a specific woman. But woman here is not definite, so you probably can't identify her. – Alan Carmack May 16 '16 at 18:02
  • @AlanCarmack Oh good point. I didn't realize that. I guess if you say "the car" in a story the reader is expecting you to refer back to that specific car, or it is a car you have seen before. When you say "a car", you are probably not going to refer to it later and the car itself isn't important. – Jake May 16 '16 at 18:08
  • @AlanCarmack I just married a British woman is talking about a specific British woman. The woman is definite in terms of her nationality, but not specific in terms of her identity. "Specific" and "definite" are synonymous when it comes to deciding which article to use. Have you ever heard anyone say "I have just married the British woman" unless she was mentioned or referred to (or identified) in the context previously? I don't understand what you're trying to prove by saying the car is a specific car in "A car drove loudly down the road because it had a large gasoline engine". – user24743 May 16 '16 at 19:12
  • @Jake I want to buy a car refers to an indefinite, nonspecific car. (It's similar to I want to buy a car, any car.) I just bought a car talks about an indefinite but specific car–the one you bought. In other words, the indefinite article can refer to something specific or non-specific, but in either case it is indefinite. I just married a woman refers to a specific but indefinite woman. The marks for definiteness, and almost all the time is also specific. Rathony is deficient is his understanding of specificity and definiteness, as they are two different properties. – Alan Carmack May 16 '16 at 21:45

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