a / the possibility

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TommyGun

Senior Member
Hi all,

Could you please help me to work out which article should be used in the following piece of a dialog:

Farther: Have you done your homework?
Son: No.
Farther: Then, there is a possibility that you will get a D at school.


How would the sense change if Farther replied the following?

Farther: Then, there is the possibility that you will get a D at school.
 
  • hopefultoo

    Senior Member
    English - UK
    Keith Bradford is right - but why?

    In your sentences:

    a
    refers to an indefinite possibility
    the refers to a definite possibility

    I met a man. The man said 'Hello.' We need to know about something in advance in order for it to be definite and require the.

    In theory Then, there is the possibility that you will get a D at school is used in a situation where the son is already aware of this possibility and Then, there is a possibility that you will get a D at school is used where the son has not previously known of this possibility.

    However, since the sentence with a specifies the possibility of getting a D and the son would have to be an idiot not to have known about this before, both sentences effectively mean the same thing.

    Grammar cannot defy logic.
     

    TommyGun

    Senior Member
    However, since the sentence with a specifies the possibility of getting a D and the son would have to be an idiot not to have known about this before, both sentences effectively mean the same thing.
    As an afterthought, then the variant with "the possibility" in this context should be more widespread than with "a possibility", shouldn't it?

    Because with 'a', the sentence could have a derogatory to the son shadow of meaning, suggesting that he really is a little bit idiot.
    Father: Then, there is a possibility that you will get a D at school.
     
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    hopefultoo

    Senior Member
    English - UK
    As an afterthought, then the variant with "the possibility" in this context should be more widespread than with "a possibility", shouldn't it?

    Because with 'a', the sentence could have a derogatory to the son shadow of meaning, suggesting that he really is a little bit idiot.
    Father: Then, there is a possibility that you will get a D at school.
    Hmmm . . . I'd hesitate to say there is a clear difference in meaning or emphasis.

    Take for example he works at a restaurant and he works in a restaurant. Both these mean the same thing - any difference in meaning between in and at collapse when faced with the real world. However - he's in the cemetery and he's at the cemetery are very different indeed. Here the different possibilities of the real world bring out the potential for differences between the prepositions.

    So, in the example under discussion I think any difference in meaning would be down to the tone of voice and any other context.
     

    TommyGun

    Senior Member
    Okay, I am convinced about "there is a/the possibility", even ngram seconds that they can be equally used.

    But what if we change the context and the father's replies becomes the following:
    Father: Then, think of a possibility that you will get a D at school.

    Here ngrams doesn't get any hit the 'a' article, and it seems that "think of the possibility" is the only appropriate expression.

    Why so?

    Take for example he works at a restaurant and he works in a restaurant. Both these mean the same thing - any difference in meaning between in and at collapse when faced with the real world. However - he's in the cemetery and he's at the cemetery are very different indeed. Here the different possibilities of the real world bring out the potential for differences between the prepositions.
    I can't catch all nuances here, but to my knowledge "he works in a restaurant" sounds normal, with meaning "he involved in restaurant work"; "he works at a restaurant" connotes that "he works at a place in town, which is a restaurant".

    I will try to guess the difference in the latter case.
    "He's at the cemetery" means that he is at a specific place, the cemetery, and the person addressed knows about this cemetery and where it is.
    "He's in the cemetery" means that he is vising some graves in the cemetery of the town, and the person addressed might not know where the cemetery is.
    Is that right?
     

    hopefultoo

    Senior Member
    English - UK
    If he's in the cemetery he's dead.

    He works at a restaurant and he works in a restaurant. Both these mean exactly the same thing.

    Father: Then, there is a possibility that you will get a D at school.
    Father: Then, there is the possibility that you will get a D at school.

    Both of these sentences are completely correct - ngrams or no ngrams.
     

    TommyGun

    Senior Member
    If he's in the cemetery he's dead.

    He works at a restaurant and he works in a restaurant. Both these mean exactly the same thing.

    Father: Then, there is a possibility that you will get a D at school.
    Father: Then, there is the possibility that you will get a D at school.

    Both of these sentences are completely correct - ngrams or no ngrams.
    Thank you much, hopefulfoo!

    Articles sometimes give a hard time to non-natives.

    But in the last example, some words were changed. They are "think of" now instead of "there is".

    Father: Then, think of a possibility that you will get a D at school.
    Father: Then, think of the possibility that you will get a D at school.

    or "consider a possibility"
    Father: Then, consider a possibility that you will get a D at school.

    Would these sentences with the 'a' also be correct?
     

    hopefultoo

    Senior Member
    English - UK
    Father: Then, think of a possibility that you will get a D at school. incorrect
    Father: Then, think of the possibility that you will get a D at school. correct

    or "consider a possibility"
    Father: Then, consider a possibility that you will get a D at school. incorrect
    Father: Then, consider the possibility that you will get a D at school. correct
     

    TommyGun

    Senior Member
    That is the sticking point why

    Father: Then, there is a possibility that you will get a D at school. - correct
    Father: Then, think of a possibility that you will get a D at school. - incorrect

    Could you please explain?

    As an afterthought, the second sentence would be more palatable with can.
    Father: Then, think of a possibility that you can get a D at school.
     
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    hopefultoo

    Senior Member
    English - UK
    The is called the definite pronoun because it is connected with things being definite. A is called the indefinite article because it refers to things that are not definite.

    Father: Then, think of a possibility that you will get a D at school.

    In the sentence above the possibility is definite since it says that you will get a D at school. This defines the possibility and makes it definite so we must write:

    Father: Then, think of the possibility that you will get a D at school.

    I know these things are tricky for non-natives - I hope this helps.
     

    TommyGun

    Senior Member
    In the sentence above the possibility is definite since it says that you will get a D at school. This defines the possibility and makes it definite ...
    Why doesn't the same justification work for the sentence with "there is", and despite the fact that the phrase "that you will get a D at school" defines that possibility, we can use the 'a' article?

    Father: Then, there is a possibility that you will get a D at school.
     

    hopefultoo

    Senior Member
    English - UK
    You ask good questions! The answer has to do with the nature of the verb used. It is a question of meaning and rather subtle.

    There are many possibilities - a,b,c,d etc. - everything is a possibility. There is a possibility that the sky will fall on our heads or a meteor will wipe out all life on this planet. These are indefinite possibilities when considered as part of a range of possibilities.

    There is a possibility that a meteor will wipe out all life on this planet is one of a range of possibilities.

    Now we have thought of it as a real possibility I can say:

    There is the possibility that a meteor will wipe out all life on this planet.

    When I ask you to think I am asking you to think of a particular thing - a definite possibility.
     

    Enquiring Mind

    Senior Member
    English - the Queen's
    Hi TommyGun, I agree with the points that hopefultoo has made in the posts so far. Hope you two don't mind someone else joining the thread.

    In the example that is puzzling you "there is a possibility that you will get a D at school", I think you can justify the indefinite article on the grounds of "first mention".
    "There is a possibility that ..." - I'm stating the existence of a possibility (whether or not it is yet defined) for the first time in our conversation.
    "There is the possibility that ..." - Although I'm stating the existence of a possibility for the first time, I'm also defining that possibility.

    I think this argument (that either definite or indefinite article can be right) is more likely with the verb "to be", because this verb, by definition, is used to state whether or not something exists or may exist, whether it's the first mention of its existence.
    In your other example, you couldn't say "think of a :cross: possibility that you will get a D" because it is a possibility that does already exist in the speaker's mind, a possibility that he is about to define.

    Sometimes there is more than one possibility with articles in specific contexts.
     

    TommyGun

    Senior Member
    hopefultoo, Enquiring Mind, thank you for your great explanations!

    Things have become a lot more clearer to me.
    Hope you two don't mind someone else joining the thread.
    Of course you are strongly welcome! :)

    And what if do use the 'a' article in situations where 'the' is normal? What sense it would be carrying?

    For example:

    1) ... Think of a possibility that ...
    2) ... Afterwards, he came to a conclusion that ...
    3) ... She also took a precaution of ...

    Each of these phrases states the existence of an instance of "possibility", "conclusion", "precaution", suggesting by 'a'es that there are other possibilities, conclusions, precautions in these circumstances. Suggesting that, it hints that the possibility, conclusion and precaution in question are not optimal, normal in the point of view of the narrator, and could be weird or brand-new.

    Does this make sense?
     

    Enquiring Mind

    Senior Member
    English - the Queen's
    Hmm, it's getting complicated, but I don't think the use of "a" instead of "the" makes any kind of judgement or impression about the noun it governs.

    In the examples you give in #16, the following options are possible. Note that the word "that" is problematic, because in my 1a and 1b, and 2a and 2b below, the word "that" is fulfilling different grammatical functions (and would be translated by a different word in Russian, but, alas, this is the English-only forum).

    1a) ... Think of the possibility that you could solve all the world's problems at a stroke. ("that" is a conjunction)
    1b) ... Think of a possibility that could solve all the world's problems at a stroke. ("that" is a pronoun, you could replace it by "which")
    2a) ... Afterwards, he came to the conclusion that he could not marry her. ("that" is a conjunction)
    2b) ... Afterwards, he came to a conclusion that meant he could not marry her. ("that" is a pronoun, you could replace it by "which")
    3) ... She also took a precaution of enormous importance for her future.
    3a) ... She also took the precaution of locking her car when she went to the supermarket.
    3b) ... She also took a precaution that probably saved her life. ("that" is a pronoun, you could replace it by "which")
     

    TommyGun

    Senior Member
    Oh, I meant 'a' with 'that', where 'that' is an identifying conjunction, in your examples it is the a) options.

    What if you wrote them with the 'a' article, the following way?

    1a) ... Think of a possibility that you could solve all the world's problems at a stroke. ("that" is a conjunction)
    2a) ... Afterwards, he came to a conclusion that he could not marry her. ("that" is a conjunction)
    3a) ... She also took a precaution of locking her car when she went to the supermarket.

    My teacher (non-native) said that this use of the article is admissible, but implies that that possibility or conclusion or precaution is out of the normal line, weird, mocking, or suggests a brand new way of thinking.

    But after this topic, I am under the impression that the 'a' is just wrong here and doesn't suggest none of this.
     
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