5

When I tell people about the football/baseball/soccer/basketball game they are supposed to have today, I say

We have a game today.

which I think is strange. It is strange that it sounds idiomatic and even grammatically correct.

But this is the specific game we have today at some specific place at some specific time. And there is only one game that I am talking about. So why is it not 'we have the game today?'

Side thought: Also should I say 'the specific game we have today' or 'a specific game we have today'? I think both are acceptable, but have slightly different meaning. Can't explain the difference though.

  • I can't answer the question, but both "we have a game today" and "the game we have is today" are correct to me. Not sure what the technical distinction is there though. – Pierce Darragh Jul 7 '16 at 18:08
  • To this native speaker, "we have the game today" implies that there is only one game, ever. The usually implies "the specific one that we already talked about", but if you didn't already talk about it, it doesn't make sense to say "the game". – stangdon Jul 7 '16 at 20:06
  • @stangdon Could you also care to explain when we might use "he is the man of his words" instead of "he is a man of his words"? – whitedevil Jul 9 '16 at 1:03
  • @whitedevil - "he is the man of his words" doesn't sound like something a native speaker would say. Firstly, the idiom is usually "of his word", if that's what you mean. The only time I would say "the man of his word" instead of "a man of his word" is when I was trying to emphasize that he was the specific one shown by something else. For example, "He is the man of his word that we had hoped he would be" or "He is the man of his word that this election needs." – stangdon Jul 9 '16 at 11:12
4

The difference between the definite and indefinite articles (the vs a/an) is often slight in English; there are many cases were either seem to work equally validly and others where there is only a slight change in meaning.

We have a game today

a is used here because which game it is not specified. There may be a particular game in mind but it's not specified.

We have the game today

This sentence implies a particular game was specified in the context.

Using a different sentence:

I am reading a book today

For this sentence I could either mean I will be reading some book (which I haven't determined yet) or I will be reading a particular book (but I'm not specifying).

I am reading the book today

This sentence would imply I am reading some book which was already specified in context. For example, a preceding sentence might have been

I went to the bookstore and bought a book yesterday.

Now, the in the sentence refers back to the book bought yesterday.

Only one item possibly being referred to doesn't make it "definite" (and thus "the"). This is more apparent with certain verbs/contexts.

I have a dog I have a dog named Rover

In both of these I have a specific dog in mind, but the dog hasn't been specified yet.

I have the dog

This means I have possession of a specific dog. It might be in response to someone asking "Where's Rover?"

  • Thank you! There is also just one more question I would very much like you to answer if it is possible. Should I say 'the specific game we have today' or 'a specific game we have today'? Logically, the appeals more, but somehow I think a appeals more from the perspective of idiomaticalness. – whitedevil Jul 7 '16 at 18:34
  • 1
    I'd lean towards "the specific game we have today". – eques Jul 7 '16 at 18:48
2

You ask:

But this is the specific game we have today at some specific place at some specific time. And there is only one game that I am talking about. So why is it not 'we have the game today?'

It is a common misconception that the indefinite article cannot or does not refer to a specific referent. In fact, it can refer to either a specific referent or a non-specific referent. What the definite article does that the indefinite article does not is refer to a definite referent. We are, after all, talking about the indefinite and definite articles here, not the "inspecific" and "specific articles."

For instance:

I want to marry an English woman.

An here refers to a non-specific English woman. It's kind of like saying any English woman, and I don't care which one, just as long as she is English. Now that is not specific, is it?

But if you say

I married an English woman, and her name is Jane.

Here an refers to a specific English woman. But since you have used the indefinite article, you are not marking the noun phrase English woman for definiteness.

If you say

I married the English woman

you are marking the noun phrase English woman as definite. What this very often means is that you expect that your addressee (the person you address the sentence to) can identify which English woman you are talking about.

In

We have a game every week

you are not talking about a specific game. But

We have a game today

is talking a specific game. What it is not doing is marking this specific game for definiteness.

If you say

We have the game today

then you are signalling to your addressee that he should be able to make some connection to 'game', either that he can identify which game you are talking about, or that he should consider 'game' as the topic about which you are going to start talking about.

The same can be said for the noun phrase specific game we have today. You can use a because the indefinite article can talk about specific referents. You can also use the if you want to mark the noun phrase as not only definite but also specific.

0

The choice of article reveals the speaker's attitude. Facts do not govern the choice of article. It is the speaker's attitude towards those facts that governs the choice of article. Speakers "frame" the statement by the choices they make.

"We have a game today" refers to "game" as the basic or general idea of game. It might be paraphrased blandly as "We are scheduled to compete today" or "We will be on the field today".

If there were a very important game today, let's say the league championship, it would be very odd to hear a player say:

We have a game today.

as that "framing" of the game as not a special game would reveal an odd nonchalance. But that choice would be perfectly possible and grammatical even though it goes against expectation. We would expect to hear

We have the game today.

or

We have the big game today.

because in most situations, people expect other people to regard a championship as a particular game with special consequences, not as "just another game".

0

You're misunderstanding what people mean when they say that "the" refers to a specific object and "a" to a non-specific object. "Specific" here doesn't mean "there is one particular instance of the thing that I have in mind". It means "the instance I am referring to has previously been identified".

Maybe that's not clear. (Probably not ...) Think of it this way: Any time I use "a" to refer to an object in the present tense, it is almost always referring to some specific thing. For example, "John is wearing a blue shirt." Clearly he is wearing some specific blue shirt -- the one that is on his body right now. "Sally is driving a car". She's isn't driving some hypothetical possible car: she's driving some specific car, the one that she is sitting in and holding the steering wheel. Etc. We say "a" and not "the" because the shirt or car or whatever has not been previously identified, not because it is hypothetical.

We use "the" when we have previously identified the thing. "What happened to that red Toyota you used to own?" "Oh, Sally is driving the car now." Now it's "the car" instead of "a car" because we have identified it in context.

If you walked up to a friend and began a conversation by saying, "I have a book you should read", that would make perfect sense. You have some book that you have not yet identified that you think he should read. If you began the conversation by saying, "I have the book you should read", his natural response would be, "What book?" You haven't specified what book is under discussion yet, so there is no "the book". If you are holding the book in your hand and offering it to him, it's still "a book" because you have not yet identified it. If on Monday you said, "I have a book I think you should read", and then on Tuesday you approach him and say, "Here's the book", now it makes sense. "The book" must refer to the book you identified yesterday.

Often we shift from "a" to "the" within a paragraph, once the thing is identified. "I bought a book. I gave the book to my brother." In the first sentence it's "a book" because we have not previously identified it. In the second sentence it's "the book" to indicate that we are referring to the same book, the book identified in the previous sentence.

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