a / the precaution

TommyGun

Senior Member
Hi all,

A text from a grammar exercise on English articles

My aunt lived on the ground floor of an old house on the River Thames. She was very much afraid of burglars and always locked up the house very carefully before she went to bed. She also took the precaution of looking under the bed to see if a burglar was hiding there.

Why is the 'the' article here, not 'a'?

Is it right, that in the case of 'the', the precaution is considered normal in this circumstances, whereas 'a precaution' would point that this precaution is out there and ridiculous?

The second explanation is that this precaution is already known to the listener or the reader. But since the above is the whole context, I doubt that it can explain the using of 'the'.
 
  • Cagey

    post mod (English Only / Latin)
    English - US
    It uses the definite article 'the' because it refers to a specific precaution -- looking under the bed.

    If it wasn't so specific, it might say 'She also took a precaution' but then we wouldn't know which precaution she took.
     

    TommyGun

    Senior Member
    Thank you for your answers!

    I am also interested in the cases when the phrase "a precaution of" could be used.

    She is very afraid of burglars and she follows a lot of compulsive rituals. And today she locked up the house very carefully. She also took another precaution - brought down the heavy shutters on the windows, and she also took a precaution of looking under the bed to see if a burglar was hiding there.


    Would the first phrase "another precaution" and the second "a precaution of" sound normal here?

    I see two reasons for the 'a' article:
    1. When we say "another precaution" or "took also a precaution of", we don't look at them as just standalone precautions; we suggest that there is a set of other precautions and these ones are just examples from that set.
    2. She just did a series of activities, not a defined series, but a series by virtue of her compulsive behavior. And some of these activities happen to be precautions. That is to say, they are not defined as precautions, they are described as precautions by choice of the writer of the text.

    Would the reasons above justify the 'a' article there, or is it nevertheless better to use "the other precaution" and "the precaution of" in this last example?
     
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    velisarius

    Senior Member
    British English (Sussex)
    "To take the​ precaution of (doing something)" is something of a set phrase. Locking the door at night is a precaution against burglars. She put up heavy wooden shutters, as a precaution.
     

    TommyGun

    Senior Member
    Thank, you velisarius, I see that I should reformulate it a bit to step back from the descriptive "another precaution".

    She is very afraid of burglars and she follows a lot of compulsive rituals. And today she locked up the house very carefully. She also took another precaution of bringing down heavy shutters on the windows, and she took a precaution of looking under the bed to see if a burglar was hiding there.

    The reasons stay the same as in post #4.
     

    srk

    Senior Member
    English - US
    The fact that the precautions belong to a set that you have populated by choosing from a larger list of possible precautions, does not alter the fact that they are each particular precautions. You still need the definite article for each.

    She took another precaution -- the precaution of bringing down heavy shutters on the windows -- and she took the precaution of looking under the bed to see if a burglar was hiding there.
     

    srk

    Senior Member
    English - US
    RM1(SS) said:
    It seems very strange to me to be referring to the first precaution mentioned as "another" precaution.

    It's "the first precaution" in my rewrite of that particular sentence. In TommyGun's examples it follows others.
     

    RM1(SS)

    Senior Member
    English - US (Midwest)

    It's "the first precaution" in my rewrite of that particular sentence. In TommyGun's examples it follows others.
    The fact that the precautions belong to a set that you have populated by choosing from a larger list of possible precautions, does not alter the fact that they are each particular precautions. You still need the definite article for each.

    She took another precaution -- the precaution of bringing down heavy shutters on the windows -- and she took the precaution of looking under the bed to see if a burglar was hiding there.
    I would say "she took the precaution ... and took another precaution...."
     

    srk

    Senior Member
    English - US
    I might word it the way you do, RM1(SS), but I didn't want to ignore TommyGun's question about whether or not there was justification for the indefinite article in itemizing precautions. I wanted to stick close to his/her construction but make sure each precaution in the list was preceded by the definite article.

    If you precede my rewrite with And today she locked up the house very carefully as TommyGun did in the original, and as I thought would be done with my rewrite, beginning the next sentence with "Another" might not look so bad to you.
     

    perpend

    Banned
    American English
    I agree with srk. There is a first "implied precaution" that isn't named as such, so the "another" does sort of make sense in Tommy's longer version.

    I also agree with srk that you need the "the", Tommy. "a precaution" does not work in your sentence.
     

    TommyGun

    Senior Member
    Thank you all!

    Still, it is hard for me to believe that there is no context at all for the phrase "take a precaution of".

    Let's draw an analogy with "get into the habit".

    1.a. He's got into the habit of biting his nails when he's nervous. - the prevailing use, where the habit in question is the one out of all the possible habits he could acquire.
    1.b. In the last few meetings she got into a habit of challenging everything I say. - a new, unexpected behaviour.

    2.a. She also took the precaution of looking under the bed to see if a burglar was hiding there.
    2.b. ?? - as analogy with 1.b, there should be an example with "a precaution", where that precaution is unexpected and not one that we are accustomed to. Could it be something like this?

    2.b. Before opening the door she took a precaution of crossing herself. (but she has never believed in God before.)

    If this example is also invalid, and no one could provide an example with the phrase "take a precaution of", then it is interesting in that sense the word "habit" is different from the word "precaution" that in the similar phrases the first allows for the "a" article, whereas the second does not. :confused:
     

    velisarius

    Senior Member
    British English (Sussex)
    As I said in #5, "to take the precaution of" is just the way we say it.

    Sometimes it's easier to just learn these set phrases than to puzzle out the whys and wherefores. It's like "he's in the habit of", which is used rather than "he's in a habit of"
     

    TommyGun

    Senior Member
    Hello again,

    The question why we can't say "a precaution of" has made me lose sleep.

    I have a version that it is because of the nature of the word "precaution", because a particular precaution is always connected to the situation, the context.

    Let me exemplify. Consider another word, "action". "Action" can depend or not depend on a particular situation. To make it as much as possible independent, suppose the action is taken on a whim. Then, we will get something like this:

    Suddenly, without any reason, he took an action of jumping.

    Would the sentence work, or should it still be "the action of jumping"?

    P.S. Of course, "action of jumping" is not good English; I just need this artificial example to help myself understand articles. :confused:
     

    velisarius

    Senior Member
    British English (Sussex)
    "He took the/an action of jumping" is not something we can say in English.

    I agree with srk in post #7; please compare:

    He took a precaution: he closed the shutters.
    He took the precaution of closing the shutters.

    He took an unusual step: he jumped.
    He took the step of jumping. Out of the many possible steps he could have taken, he took he particular step of jumping.

    :)(I'm very sorry to hear this has been keeping you awake for 6 months)
     

    TommyGun

    Senior Member
    He took an unusual step: he jumped.
    He took the step of jumping. Out of the many possible steps he could have taken, he took he particular step of jumping.
    Ok, let it be "step of jumping".

    How about this context:
    She was absolutely happy and full of emotions that almost tore her apart. She started to move in an uncontrolled way: she sat on the floor, then she got up, then took a step of jumping, and started to swirl.

    My reasons for "a step of":
    1. "a" = "one" - she took a step of jumping = she jumped once. The emphasis turns out to be on the quantity of actions, not on the action of jumping.
    2. She performed involuntarily. So, "taking a step" doesn't mean that she consciously took this action, but rather that she got / fell into this action of jumping. Thus, "taking a step of jumping" = "getting / falling into an action of jumping". And "get into an action of jumping" is that we can say, meaning an action from an infinite set of all the possible actions.

    Would you nevertheless say here "took the step of jumping"?
     
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    velisarius

    Senior Member
    British English (Sussex)
    In trying to stay close to your example I have probably misled you. Sorry about that.

    To take a step (metaphorically) = to take some action.

    We can't say "take a step of jumping".

    He took an extreme step: he took the step of sacking all the staff in his company.
     
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