“Let me speak to him… face-to-face…”
“Master, you are not strong enough!”
“I have strength enough… for this…”

Harry felt as if Devil’s Snare was rooting him to the spot. He couldn’t move a muscle. Petrified, he watched as Quirrell reached up and began to unwrap his turban. What was going on? The turban fell away. Quirrell’s head looked strangely small without it. Then he turned slowly on the spot.
Harry would have screamed, but he couldn’t make a sound. Where there should have been a back to Quirrell’s head, there was a face, the most terrible face Harry had ever seen. It was chalk white with glaring red eyes and slits for nostrils, like a snake.
“Harry Potter…” it whispered.
(Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone)

It seems, I think, ‘the’ should be put instead of ‘a’, for the owner of the back is specified. Then why is there ‘a’?

1 Answer 1


Ah, interesting case.

When you're talking about something that is not present, you use "the" when you mean that the specific thing that you want is not present, and "a" when anything in the category you are looking for is not present.

Say, for example, you are getting dressed in the morning and you want to wear one particular shirt, like you have a t-shirt with "I love ell.stackexchange.com" printed on the front, and that's the one you want to wear. But you can't find it in the drawer. There may be other shirts there, but not the one you want. You could say, "I can't find the shirt." That is, "the shirt", the one specific shirt you are looking for. But suppose instead you are looking for any shirt, you just need something to wear. You look in your drawer and there are no shirts at all there. You could say, "I can't find a shirt." "A shirt", any shirt.

In this case, either article would work, but "a" is more forceful. Presumably Quirrell's head would be expected to have one specific back, so it would be correct to say "where he expected to see the back of Quirrell's head ..." But the strange thing about Quirrell's head was not that it didn't have the one specific back that Harry expected, but that it didn't have any back at all. So it's correct to say, "it doesn't have a back", any back. This is more forceful because by using "a" instead of "the", it emphasizes that it's not just that it had the wrong back, but that it had no back at all.

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