He bought the house with a big backyard. This combination tells the listener which specific house he bought.

He bought a house with a big backyard. This combination tells the listener what kind of house he bought, but not the specific house he bought.

I always thought that I can say "the house with a big backyard" whether the listener knows about the house or not.

But in the previous question regarding articles, I received an answer saying ""the" won't work if the listener does not have any information about the house before hearing about it", and said one should use "a" if the listener does not have any background information about it.

So I realized that "a" and "the" are entirely governend by whether the listener already knows it or not, not whether you are trying to specify the item or not.

I was living happily with this knowledge, until another question came into my mind.

Take a look at this conversation:

John: What did you do yesterday?

Sam (a prosecutor): I was hearing a reason a murderer killed the victim being justified.

John did not know anything about the trial, and "reason the murderer killed the victim" is new information to him. John did not know about it till Sam told him. Thus, in this case, use of indefinite article should be natural.

But it doesn't sound natural. It sounds strange.

My gut tells me that "the" should be used in that case, even though the idea is introduced for the first time, and the listener knew nothing about it.

I think the only time that "a" can be used in this sentence with "reason" is if there were more than one reason. But there was only one reason.

But why can I not use "a" in that case? Or is it actually possible?

(the dialogue is made up)

EDIT: I found a valid instance;

(2) That wasn’t a reason I left Pittsburgh, it was the reason.

From https://msu.edu/~abbottb/support.htm

  • RE: So I realized that "a" and "the" are entirely governend by whether the listener already knows it or not. Not exactly. I've discussed this some in this previous post. – J.R. Jul 25 '16 at 17:04
  • @J.R. Thank you. But I couldn't find a reason to use "the" in the dialogue above in your answer. – whitedevil Jul 25 '16 at 17:07
  • 2
    Because you have a bunch of native speakers who are writing their best guesses as to article usage in English, which is one of the most complicated aspects of our language. The use of articles comes natural to us, but few native speakers even know, for example, that the indefinite article can refer to specific referents. The answers about articles you get here on ELL and even on ELU are mostly going to be the blind native speaker leading the blind non-native speaker so that they both fall into a pit. An alternative is to read... (continued) – Alan Carmack Jul 25 '16 at 20:54
  • 1
    ...some articles written by professionals who know something about the topic. I suggest you start with this article by Barbara Abbott on definite and indefinite articles. If you do not understand the point she is making at first, keep reading, it becomes clearer. She has many illustrations of how different explanations for the use of the definite article, while sometimes okay, fail miserably to explain some everyday examples. If after reading this, you have questions, post one here. You can also email me directly at alancarmack at gmail dot com. – Alan Carmack Jul 25 '16 at 20:58
  • 1
    I just now saw that you reference a link to the same B. Abbott in your post. She is one of the good ones; there are others. The main thing is that a speaker uses the definite article when he thinks his listener can identify which referent he is talking about. Else, he uses the indefinite article. (But speakers are not bound to this gereralization, and do not stick to it.) In addition, there are many exceptions that do not fit this generalization. And this is why no "unified theory" in the use even of just the definite article has yet been offered by a linguist that takes into account all uses. – Alan Carmack Jul 25 '16 at 21:03

John: What did you do yesterday?

Sam (a prosecutor): I was hearing a [or: the?] reason a murderer killed the victim being justified.

In short, the reason sounds better, because in life as we and John know it, there is usually only one reason given by, or on behalf of, a murderer. This is true, whether John has heard about this specific case, this specific trial, this specific murderer, or not. This is just the way life, and most murder trials work. (Although, Prosecutor Sam is being a little over-zealous for his cause here, because in the USA, a person is innocent until proven guilty; so a person on trial for murder, is an accused murderer, not a murder--unless he has murdered previously, but still regarding this newest trial, he is an accused murderer: still Sam could, off the record, call the person a "murderer.")

In rare cases, more than one (thus a) reason could be given, as in when people are trying to guess "the reason." But there is usually only one reason, and this one reason can include multiple facts, strands, or sub-reasons, but it can be summarized as "the reason." And this is "the reason' that Jill, the accused murderer's defense attorney is going to try to justify. Not one among many, but just this one.

If this murderer did indeed have more than one reason, then a could be used.

But it is not true that "a" and "the" are entirely governed by whether the listener already knows it or not. This is a false thesis. Read more of Abbott.

What usually governs the use of a and the is the assumption that the speaker makes about the listener. If the speaker assumes the listener can identify which referent he is talking about, then the speaker will use the. Else, he will use a. But notice even this is just a guideline. Speakers do not have to abide by this rule, and this rule does not cover the corollary, the use of a. In fact, a speaker can use a even if he knows that the listener can identify the referent. Let's go over this using the sentence a about the house.

If say to you

Our friend Jason bought the house with a big back yard.

this usually means I would expect you to be able identify which house I'm talking about. Either you are familiar with this house, because you've seen it or we've discussed it before, or something along those lines. But, usually, if I don't assume you can identify which house I'm talking about, I would use a house with a big back yard.

However, if we are limiting the discourse context to one sentence, I would probably say

Our friend Jason bought the house with the big back yard.

Notice I say both the house and the big back yard. This is because, given the discourse context of only one sentence, the house I expect you to be able to identify is identifiable because of its big back yard. This is the only characteristic of the house that distinguishes it from the other houses that Jason was considering buying. In other words, among the houses that Jason was serious about buying, only one of them had a big back yard.

If I say

Jason bought a house with a big back yard.

Taking this sentence as our only context, I would normally say it if I assumed you could not identify which house I'm talking about.

However analyzing the whys and wherefores of individual sentences shorn from any context is extremely problematic especially when taking about ten use of articles. Also important are speaker's intention, what the speaker assumes assumes, and any other context. Thus

If we are standing in front of the house that Jason bought, and it has a big back yard and I say

Well, Jason bought a house with a big back yard (just like he said he would); just look how big that back yard is!

this doesn't mean I don't expect you to be able to identify which house Jason bought. We both know which house it is: we're standing in front of it, talking about it! In this case, the noun phrase a house with a big back yard refers to a specific house, namely the one we are standing in front of and talking about. But, grammatically I am not identifying it as a definite house; for that, I would have to use the definite article.

  • 2
    ...(from Abbott's article) "Though the familiarity theory is very plausible for a number of uses of definite descriptions, there are some kinds of cases it does not appear to cover very well. One of these is definite descriptions where the descriptive content of the NP is sufficient to determine a unique referent., no matter what the context. Ex:_Philip rejected the idea that languages are strictly finite_ Here we need not assume that the addressee is familiar with the referents of the bolded NPs, or that these referents had been mentioned previously in the conversation. Note too... – whitedevil Jul 25 '16 at 22:43
  • 2
    ....that in this kind of case, the indefinite article is not allowed. And even when the descriptive content is not sufficient to determine a unique referent relative to the whole world, there are examples where the content may determine a unique referent in context. In these cases too the definite article may be used, even if the addressee is not assumed to know who or what is being talked about. An example is given in (9). (9) Sue is mad because the realtor who sold her house overcharged his fee." a/the house with a big backyard does not have enough descriptive content, but I think.... – whitedevil Jul 25 '16 at 22:47
  • this is the case where the content determines a unique referent relative, making it possible to say it with the definite article even when the listener is not assumed to know about it, but also with the indefinite article if one feels like it. Right? – whitedevil Jul 25 '16 at 22:49
  • I'm not sure how you're determining that there is usually only one reason given…for a murder. I don't find this statement to be universally true, so depending on the circumstances, a could be the right choice. – Giambattista Jul 26 '16 at 0:19
  • Also, regarding: Sam already knows which book he is going to read. And Sam knows that John knows which book Sam is talking about. So this is a specific book being talked about. But the definite article is not used. Why? Because it doesn't have to be., I'm not sure how you came up with that either. Nothing in the sentence suggests that anyone involved knows the specific book in question. In fact, the use of a leaves open the possibility that the book is unknown by one or both parties. I've never seen so much generalizing, supposition, and opinion in an answer as this. – Giambattista Jul 26 '16 at 0:22

I'll try to keep my answer short and sweet because this is the kind of topic you can spend hours on end talking about.

When we talk about things using the, there's typically, what I'd call, a personal history record associated with the object being talked about. And the information the record holds is unique and very specific to that particular object. Think of it as a short life story of the object. For example, if you were to say the following to one of your friends:

I bought the house with a big backyard yesterday.

while you really meant this (and that's the correct way to say it when talking about things in general):

I bought a house with a big backyard yesterday.

That the in front of house would immediately tell your friend that there was some specific information associated with the house and that would naturally elicit questions like: What? What house exactly are you talking about? I had heard you were going to buy a house, but you never told me that you had already decided which one you would buy. The one painted green or the brick one? Maybe the one on the corner? Which one exactly? There are many houses that are being sold right now.

I was hearing a reason a murderer killed the victim being justified.

That one technically is correct (though, "I was hearing the justification for why the murderer killed a victim" is probably more natural to say for a native speaker) because he's speaking about things in general. The surrounding words are just extra fluff. They're like qualifier-words. Compare that with this:

I bought a big, red car being sold for real cheap.

big, red and being sold for real cheap are just adjectives (being sold for real cheap is not really an adjective, but bear with me) describing the kind of car you bought. They're really nothing but qualifiers that describe how large the car was, what color it was and how exactly it was being sold, but the car itself lacks a personal history to tell the world about. It's still a car in general.

I hope now this clears things up a little bit for you. If you've still got questions, leave them down below in the comments section and I will make changes or corrections to my answer. Maybe not today though.

  • For the 1st example (depending on the context), you could say I bought the house with the big backyard yesterday.? And to add to your answer, which is mostly spot on, wouldn't you refer to the phrase being sold for real cheap as being attributive? – Giambattista Jul 25 '16 at 21:55
  • 1. "I bought the house with the big backyard yesterday" -- yes, you could say that, but I just wasn't planning on going through all possible combinations. 2. attributive, not attributive -- what's in a name? Doesn't matter what you call it, the point is that those are just descriptive words. – Michael Rybkin Jul 25 '16 at 22:00
  • Sorry I wasn't nit-picking at your answer; I just wanted to add to it. The reason I mentioned the house with the big backyard is because you were discussing specificity. You're so right about it being a topic tfor which hours could be spent discussing it. As for attributive, I just threw that out there because you were explaining why the phrase is acting like an adjective modifying car. – Giambattista Jul 25 '16 at 22:08
  • Alright... but doesn't "a reason a murderer killed the victim" sound unnatural to you? Would you use it? Because it does to me. – whitedevil Jul 25 '16 at 22:33
  • @whitedevil insomuch as a and one are generally interchangeable, I'd agree with Cookie Monster. Perhaps if you re-read it, substituting one for a, it might not sound so odd to you? – Giambattista Jul 25 '16 at 23:49

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