A cat VS the cat (when the cat doesn't really matter)

Vsevolod

Senior Member
Russian
Hello!

I'm puzzeld by the use of the articles in the following dialogues:

Theo: I'm working and you are playing with a/the cat!
Benedict: Okay, I'm coming!
*15 minutes later*
Benedict: Theo, where is the...oh, you are still playing with a/the cat...
Theo: Sorry, I can't help it


Theo: I'm working and you are sitting on a chair!
Benedict: Okay, I'm coming!
*15 minutes later*
Benedict: Theo, where is the...oh, you are still sitting on a/the chair...
Theo: Sorry, I can't help it

Question#1:

Should I opt for "the cat" in the first line, as it is a well-defined cat or am I to say "a cat" because the cat is unimportant for the situation and it can well be referred to as a generic one?

Question#2:

For the second line, can I keep the indefinite article "a" for the same reason (the unimportance of the cat's role in the situation)?

Question#3:

Will the reasoning hold if we trade "playing with a/the cat" for "sitting on a chair"

Thank you in advance!
Seva:)
 
  • Chasint

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Suppose I live with someone and we own a cat. Then we would refer to the animal as "the cat", e.g.
    "Have you let the cat out?" :tick:
    "Have you let a cat out?" :cross:


    Theo: I'm working and you are playing with the cat! (Without further context, the reader assumes that this cat lives with Theo and Benedict - it's their pet)
    Benedict: Okay, I'm coming!

    Theo: I'm working and you are playing with a cat! (Without further context, the reader assumes that this cat does not live with Theo and Benedict - Perhaps it has wandered into their neighbourhood.)
    Benedict: Okay, I'm coming!

    __________________________________________

    Theo: I'm working and you are sitting on the chair! (The listener assumes that there is only one chair in the room)
    Benedict: Okay, I'm coming!

    Theo: I'm working and you are sitting on a chair! (The listener does not assume anything about the number of chairs.)
    Benedict: Okay, I'm coming!
     
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    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    As general guidance, you should understand
    (i) "a/an noun" to mean "one example of that noun"; any; a random
    and
    "the" as a demonstrative adjective (similar to "that") that means "the <noun> that we are both aware of and both know (or which I am indicating)"

    Theo: I'm working and you are playing with a cat! -> you are playing with one example of a cat! = you are playing with a random cat!

    Theo
    : I'm working and you are playing with the cat! -> you are playing with the cat that we both know (or which I am indicating)
     

    Vsevolod

    Senior Member
    Russian
    Am I getting it right, that the articles are reserved for identification purposes and have nothing to do with the logical focus within a sentence?
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    I'm not sure what you mean, but they act adjectivally (qualitative (the) or quantitative (a/an)) on the noun. In the example, there is a cat of some description - "cat" is the object.

    As an aside, it is worth bearing in mind that all singular nouns, when used countably, must be qualified by a determiner (the/my/that, etc.) or quantifier (a/an/any.)1

    1 There are rare exceptions (or constructions in which there appears to be an exception.)
     
    Last edited:

    Chasint

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Am I getting it right, that the articles are reserved for identification purposes and have nothing to do with the logical focus within a sentence?
    I don't really understand your question. Maybe this example will help:

    "John, there is a cat in our house! Please can you make it leave?" (This is an unknown cat that has not been mentioned before so it is "a cat")
    "Okay, you open the back door and I'll chase the cat out." ("the back door" is a door that these people see every day. There is only one back door in their house. "the cat" has been spoken about once - it can be referred to as "the cat", i.e. the cat that we were talking about.)
     

    Vsevolod

    Senior Member
    Russian
    Thank you Chasint and PaulQ!

    So, if there are 4 chairs in the room and Theo sits on 2 of them, Benedict might go:
    "You are sitting on two chairs instead of being productive"
    (i know, it makes no sence:))
    But if there are only two chairs in the room and both are occupied by Theo, Benedict will say:
    "you are sitting on the two chairs instead of being productive"
    Am I gettin it right?
     

    lingobingo

    Senior Member
    English - England
    In the OP examples, the most normal articles to use are “playing with the cat” (it being extremely likely that this cat belongs to Theo and/or Benedict, which is what “the” implies) and “sitting on a chair” (the chair itself being incidental to the point that Benedict ought to get up off his backside and start working). And in both cases, Theo would be likely to use the same article when repeating his observation.
     

    Chasint

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Thank you Chasint and PaulQ!

    So, if there are 4 chairs in the room and Theo sits on 2 of them, Benedict might go:
    "You are sitting on two chairs instead of being productive"
    (i know, it makes no sence:))
    But if there are only two chairs in the room and both are occupied by Theo, Benedict will say:
    "you are sitting on the two chairs instead of being productive"
    Am I gettin it right?
    Yes,that is correct. :thumbsup:

    and for the second, you might hear this.

    "you are sitting on the chairs instead of being productive" ("two" is implied because everyone can see there are only two in the room)

    EDIT
    If you want to be certain then an example involving 'two apples' and 'eating' would be more realistic than 'two chairs' and 'sitting'! (Simply because we can eat two apples but don't usually sit on two chairs)
     

    SevenDays

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    Hello!

    I'm puzzeld by the use of the articles in the following dialogues:

    Theo: I'm working and you are playing with a/the cat!
    Benedict: Okay, I'm coming!
    *15 minutes later*
    Benedict: Theo, where is the...oh, you are still playing with a/the cat...
    Theo: Sorry, I can't help it


    Theo: I'm working and you are sitting on a chair!
    Benedict: Okay, I'm coming!
    *15 minutes later*
    Benedict: Theo, where is the...oh, you are still sitting on a/the chair...
    Theo: Sorry, I can't help it

    Question#1:

    Should I opt for "the cat" in the first line, as it is a well-defined cat or am I to say "a cat" because the cat is unimportant for the situation and it can well be referred to as a generic one?

    Question#2:

    For the second line, can I keep the indefinite article "a" for the same reason (the unimportance of the cat's role in the situation)?

    Question#3:

    Will the reasoning hold if we trade "playing with a/the cat" for "sitting on a chair"

    Thank you in advance!
    Seva:)
    Articles are tricky.

    In addition to what's been said, consider this. I don't know who Theo and Benedict are, but let's assume that they are brothers and that it is their cat. In such case, it's quite natural to use the definite article because the cat is identifiable (you are still playing with the cat!). If it's their cat, the (likely) assumption is that there's an emotional component, that the cat is considered as part of the family. If it's their cat, saying You are still playing with a cat! reduces the emotional importance of this cat, so that the speaker is now treating the cat as an animal rather than as a part of the family.

    It's unlikely that a chair would be treated as part of the family. That's why, even if there are several chairs around, you can simply say You are sitting on a chair! where the speaker is treating the chair as a mere piece of furniture.

    When it comes to articles, there's often more than one way to skin a cat (... I know, I know, sorry about the bad pun).
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    In addition to what's been said, consider this. I don't know who Theo and Benedict are, but let's assume that they are brothers and that it is their cat. In such case, it's quite natural to use the definite article because the cat is identifiable (you are still playing with the cat!). If it's their cat, the (likely) assumption is that there's an emotional component, that the cat is considered as part of the family. If it's their cat, saying You are still playing with a cat! reduces the emotional importance of this cat, so that the speaker is now treating the cat as an animal rather than as a part of the family.
    The essence of "the" is not related directly to the connection between its object and the other party.

    It is often said that "the" 'specifies' but this is not quite so. To be attributed with "the", the noun must already have been specified, usually by

    (i) A previous mention:
    A: "Oh look! There's a deer in the garden."
    [Next day]
    A: "The deer's back."

    (ii) Common knowledge
    "The cat is a great predator." (Everyone knows what a cat is.)

    (iii) qualification of the noun
    "The tree with the broken branch needs cutting down."

    (iv) indication
    A: [points] "The lady looks as if she needs help."
     

    Vsevolod

    Senior Member
    Russian
    The essence of "the" is not related directly to the connection between its object and the other party.

    It is often said that "the" 'specifies' but this is not quite so. To be attributed with "the", the noun must already have been specified, usually by

    (i) A previous mention:
    A: "Oh look! There's a deer in the garden."
    [Next day]
    A: "The deer's back."

    (ii) Common knowledge
    "The cat is a great predator." (Everyone knows what a cat is.)

    (iii) qualification of the noun
    "The tree with the broken branch needs cutting down."

    (iv) indication
    A: [points] "The lady looks as if she needs help."
    Does this sound OK? Oh, and is there any appopriate context where "the" could be changed for "a"?

    Theo: I'm working and you are sitting on a chair!
    Benedict: Okay, I'm coming!
    *15 minutes later*
    Benedict: Theo, where is the...oh, you are still sitting on the chair...
    Theo: Sorry, I can't help it

    I've had this reasoning myself:
    and “sitting on a chair” (the chair itself being incidental to the point that Benedict ought to get up off his backside and start working). And in both cases, Theo would be likely to use the same article when repeating his observation.
    P.S. SevenDays, thank you for your contribution and your classy pun:D
     

    Chasint

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Does this sound OK? Oh, and is there any appopriate context where "the" could be changed for "a"?

    Theo: I'm working and you are sitting on a chair!
    Benedict: Okay, I'm coming!
    *15 minutes later*
    Benedict: Theo, where is the...oh, you are still sitting on the chair...
    Theo: Sorry, I can't help it
    ...
    That works perfectly.

    Benedict: Theo, where is the...oh, you are still sitting on the chair... (This refers to the same chair that was mentioned in the previous conversation.)

    Benedict: Theo, where is the...oh, you are still sitting on a chair... (This probably refers to a different chair. It could mean the same chair but we don't know or don't care if it is the same chair)
     
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    lingobingo

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Benedict: Theo, where is the...oh, you are still sitting on a chair... (This probably refers to a different chair. It could mean the same chair but we don't know or don't care if it is the same chair)
    It’s true that it’s immaterial whether it’s the same chair or not, but it’s not true that using the indefinite article suggests that it’s more likely to be a different chair!

    15 minutes ago, instead of working you were in here sitting on a chair. And now, what do I find? You’re still in here sitting on a chair!

    It’s a simple repetition. The point is that he’s still doing the same thing.
     
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