a / the total of

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TommyGun

Senior Member
Hi,

Some examples from my dictionary:

1. A total of thirteen meetings were held to discuss the issue.
2. I earned a grand total of $4.15.

That's is not a question whether I should use the phrase "a total of" or "the total of", because there is the well-known idiom "a total of".
The question is what is the reason why 'a', not 'the', is used there.

To my non-native eyes, 'the' would look more logical, because we determine things. This is a concrete grand total, which totals $4.15, and which I earned, in the second sentence.
This is not an unknown total, but the total of thirteen meetings that were held in the first sentence.
 
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  • wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    In the first case, the definite article does not work. The sentence is introducing a new fact, not mentioned before.
    However, later in the same piece you might say, 'The total of thirteen meetings on this one issue represents a serious waste of time and money'.

    In the second case, 'the grand total' would work well. Both options are valid and there is little difference in meaning.
    In this case, 'the grand total' is an ironic phrase, which employs a familiar expression. The reference is to a common understanding which the writer expects the reader to share.
     

    TommyGun

    Senior Member
    Thank you very much, wandle.

    In the second case, 'the grand total' would work well. Both options are valid and there is little difference in meaning.
    Could you please explain that, however little, difference?

    2.a I earned a grand total of $4.15.
    2.b I earned the grand total of $4.15.

    I would explain in the following way:
    In 2.a I state the existence of what I earned for the first time, the sentence could be reformulated as "There is a grand total of $4.15 that I earned."
    In 2.b that grand total already exists in my mind, and therefore I define it.

    Do I understand it right?
     

    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    In 2.b that grand total already exists in my mind, and therefore I define it.
    Do I understand it right?
    It is a reference to the ironic use of the phrase 'the grand total' which exists in people's minds as a way of referring humorously to a small total. The writer expects the reader to be familiar with it already.
    The above is what makes the definite article appropriate.

    Saying 'a grand total' also produces a humorous effect, expressed more straightforwardly.
     

    TommyGun

    Senior Member
    It is a reference to the ironic use of the phrase 'the grand total' which exists in people's minds as a way of referring humorously to a small total. The writer expects the reader to be familiar with it already.
    The above is what makes the definite article appropriate.

    Saying 'a grand total' also produces a humorous effect, expressed more straightforwardly.
    Thank you for the explanation. :)

    So, if I leave out the word "grand" that refers to a pattern, the version with 'the' will be inappropriate?

    3.a I earned a total of $4.15.
    :tick:
    3.b I earned the total of $4.15. :cross:

    The other thing that is strange to me is that according to google, really, people would not say "I earned the total of ...", but would say equally "I earned the sum of..." as "I earned a sum of".

    What is the aspect in the word "total" that makes it inappropriate for use with the 'the' article, whereas the word "sum" accepts any?
     
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    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    So, if I leave out the word "grand" that refers to a pattern, the version with 'the' will be inappropriate?
    Yes.
    What is the aspect in the word "total" that makes it inappropriate for use with the 'the' article, whereas the word "sum" accepts any?
    The word 'sum' in origin means 'total'. It retains that meaning today, but it has also acquired a more general meaning of 'amount'.
    Hence when people say 'the sum of $4.15' they mean 'that amount which is defined or measured as $4.15'. This is a defining phrase applied to a general term.

    'Total' on the other hand implies there has been a specific calculation with a particular result. It is not a general term in the same sense.
     
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