a & the difference when referring?

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revenote13

New Member
Korean
Hi all,

After all these years, I still have problems finding the difference between 'a' and 'the'.
From what I understand, you put 'the' in front of a noun when it's something you and the person who's listening to you both know.
or if it's very obvious that it can't be anything else but that.
I've read a lot about 'a and the', and I still don't get it. most of the time I end up using 'some' instead of 'a or the' to avoid the error.

anyways, here's the sentence that I'm having problem with. It's in bold.
Chrissie was a tall girl who was quite beautiful when she stood up to her full height, but she didn't seem to realise this and spent her time crouching to be the same as the rest of us. That's why she often looked more like the Wicked Witch than a movie star -an impression reinforced by her irritating way of jabbing you with a finger the second before she said something to you.
I thought it'd be "the impression", since the narrator has already mentioned about how Chrissie looked like the Wicked Witch(which is an impression)?

Thanks in advance. I really need help on this.

by the way the quote is from Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
 
  • MonikaUSA

    Senior Member
    English - USA
    This is a tough one! Wait for an English expert to show up. Use 'the' when referring to something specific, and 'a/an' for an item not specifically being referred to. In your example from Ishiguro, the difference is very subtle ('the' could have been used), and I would say that it's a difference here in style (if I had to guess). Here, "an impression" is like saying 'a kind of impression' with no specific reference.

    Good luck!
     

    sabretoof

    Senior Member
    English - Australia
    Chrissie was a tall girl who was quite beautiful when she stood up to her full height, but she didn't seem to realise this and spent her time crouching to be the same as the rest of us. That's why she often looked more like the Wicked Witch than a movie star -an impression reinforced by her irritating way of jabbing you with a finger the second before she said something to you.

    I thought it'd be "the impression", since the narrator has already mentioned about how Chrissie looked like the Wicked Witch(which is an impression)?
    I can't think of any concrete rules here. If one takes your interpretation, I think the is reasonable there, but I think that something like "... - a(n) noun verbed" is simply a common construction, and doesn't necessarily follow a rule.
     

    dn88

    Senior Member
    Polish
    The indefinite article "an" was used here because the noun "impression" had not been mentioned before.
    Not really. We don't use the definite article because the "impression" is being defined at the moment of speaking. A noun doesn't always have be mentioned first in order for it to take the definite article.
     

    khongnho

    Senior Member
    Vietnamese
    Not really. We don't use the definite article because the "impression" is being defined at the moment of speaking. A noun doesn't always have be mentioned first in order for it to take the definite article.

    In this case the noun "impression" is not a particular one nor is it mentioned before. In other words, it is unkown to the readers, therefore it has to take an indefinite article. (The writer may have written about the "look", but he/she never did mention anything about "an impression").
     

    giorgio antonio

    New Member
    English - England
    Hi,

    An is used here because it is not definitive - it is not the only impression of Chrissie, it is just one of many possible impressions. you may have another impression of Chrissie's intellect, or her behaviour, this impression is of her look.

    Also it is general (so again not definitive), it is not just your impression, but an impression many people might make, given her appearance.

    you could use the if it is definitive and the only impression you have: her appearance gave me the impression of the wicked witch...
     

    khongnho

    Senior Member
    Vietnamese
    Hi,

    An is used here because it is not definitive - it is not the only impression of Chrissie, it is just one of many possible impressions. you may have another impression of Chrissie's intellect, or her behaviour, this impression is of her look.

    Also it is general (so again not definitive), it is not just your impression, but an impression many people might make, given her appearance.

    you could use the if it is definitive and the only impression you have: her appearance gave me the impression of the wicked witch...

    Ditto! Seconded!
     

    TommyGun

    Senior Member
    Hello,
    you could use the if it is definitive and the only impression you have: her appearance gave me the impression of the wicked witch...
    Let's rewrite the original paragraph with the definite article and find out contexts where it would fit better.
    a)
    Chrissie was a tall girl who was quite beautiful when she stood up to her full height, but she didn't seem to realise this and spent her time crouching to be the same as the rest of us. That's why she often looked more like the Wicked Witch than a movie star -an impression reinforced by her irritating way of jabbing you with a finger the second before she said something to you.
    b)
    Chrissie was a tall girl who was quite beautiful when she stood up to her full height, but she didn't seem to realise this and spent her time crouching to be the same as the rest of us. That's why she often looked more like the Wicked Witch than a movie star -the impression reinforced by her irritating way of jabbing you with a finger the second before she said something to you.
    Below are my suggestions about what could be the difference:
    1. In b) the impression is more certain, and feels stronger than in a).
    2. b) is the primary impression that anyone who knows Chrissie can get about her.
    3. b) is the narrator's impression.
    4. b) is the narrator's primary impression.
    ....

    Which of the points do you think would work best? Maybe none, and I am off the mark at all?
     

    EStjarn

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    Which of the points do you think would work best? Maybe none, and I am off the mark at all?
    I'm sorry, TommyGun, but, as I see it, none of your suggestions explain "the" here. "An" is simply the more natural choice.

    The only exceptions I can think of would be:

    (i) If to the reader it was a known fact that Chrissie often looked more like the Wicked Witch than a movie star. But the context suggests it is not.

    (ii) If the narrator was speaking to himself/herself, which again is contradicted by the context.

    In short, I can't defend using "the" here.
     
    Last edited:

    TommyGun

    Senior Member
    Thanks, EStjarn!

    Would a third exception, which I suggest, count to you?

    (iii) It's the impression that the speaker received from her. He implied his reception of the impression, but didn't express it in words:
    That's why she often looked more like the Wicked Witch than a movie star -the impression [that I get from her] reinforced by her irritating way of jabbing you with a finger the second before she said something to you.
     

    EStjarn

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    I understand the narrator is referring to a general impression, not a personal one, having just finished a sentence with "as the rest of us."

    To give the reader a chance to understand the impression was personal, I'd say it would be necessary to point it out, for example by adding "to me":
    That's why to me she often looked more like the Wicked Witch than a movie star - the impression reinforced by her irritating way of jabbing you with a finger the second before she said something to you.
    In that case, I agree that "the" would be appropriate.
     
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