article + wrong + noun [<the/a> wrong time]

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Senior Member
I can't get how an article is used with a noun modified by the adjective 'wrong'. For the most part it is 'the' but sometimes I run across 'a'.

This is ... wrong time to make a visit.

My first choice would be 'the'. To me 'wrong' suggests an idea of limitation, like 'the following question', 'the same answer' etc. But I'm not sure.

Thanks in advance.
  • Cenzontle

    Senior Member
    English, U.S.
    I asked the C.O.C.A. corpus about "[article] wrong [noun]".
    The 100 most frequent collocations, with 10,982 instances
    include only 10 collocations (505 instances) with "a"; the remainder are with "the".
    Those with "a" are
    "turn" (218 instances, vs. 24 of "the wrong turn")
    "way" (65, vs. 1,259 of "the wrong way")
    "number (55, vs. 99 of "the wrong number")
    "decision" (35, vs. 120 of "the wrong decision")
    "answer" (29, vs. 94 of "the wrong answer")
    "thing" (29, vs. 717 of "the wrong thing")
    "move" (23, vs. 33 of "the wrong move")
    "note" (19, vs. 0 of "the wrong note")
    "call" (16, vs. 0 of "the wrong call")
    "direction" (16, vs. 699 of "the wrong direction")
    As you can see, only "turn", "note", and "call" appear more with "a" than "the".
    My intuition says that "a wrong number would be more frequent in the context of telephoning.
    The preponderance of "the" seems illogical, since there are many situations where there is only one way to be right, but many ways to be wrong.


    Senior Member
    English - England
    From the point of view of "wrong", the word operates the same way as all other adjectives. The context of the noun decides if the article is the or a.

    With wrong, however, it is more likely that the noun will describe something specific, often in implied contrast to the correct item.

    "This is the wrong door." = This is the door and it is the wrong door. We would say the, because it is the specific door to which we are referring and we are pointing at it, holding it, or at least close to it.

    Compare - "Look at the cat." - We are referring to a specific cat, we do not say, "Look at a cat."

    "He hit a wrong note" = one of the notes he hit was wrong - any one note from amongst many, therefore a note.

    Beryl from Northallerton

    Senior Member
    British English
    Nice research, Cenzontle!
    It might be a bit of a leap, but it seems as though we use 'the wrong X' predominantly where a corresponding 'the right X'' exists, as if they were bipolar opposites.
    I'm basing this on my feeling that 'the right note' and 'the right turn' seem unusual, though not impossible (I don't know about 'the right call').
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