the/a rare uncorrupt cop

OED Loves Me Not

Senior Member
Japanese - Osaka
Hello again, friends! First, please have a look at the highlighted phrase in the following context:
Most importantly, do they fit in. Because if you don't fit in, the target will spot you, and after that you won't be able to get close enough to do it right. Or the rare uncorrupt cop will spot you, and you'll have some explaining to do. Or a countersurveillance team will spot you, and then-congratulations!- the target will be you. (Bold font mine)
(Source: Barry Eisler, Hard Rain)
Eisler Barry Hard Rain Книга fb2 ::

Why does the author use a definite article "the" in the highlighted phrase instead of an indefinite article "a" here? I have my own theory but I'd like some confirmation from native speakers yet again, because my theory doesn't convince my fellow learners of English because I'm a nonnative.

Thank you.
  • dojibear

    Senior Member
    AE (US English)
    Or the rare uncorrupt cop will spot you
    Usually it would be "Or a cop will spot you". But the writer wants to add two meanings:
    1. - "most cops are corrupt; uncorrupt cops are rare"
    2. - "only an uncorrupt cop will spot you".

    So the writer says "or a cop will spot you (the uncorrupt kind, that are rare)". But he found a shorter way to write this.

    That is what using "the rare" instead of "a" means to me. I can't explain why.

    OED Loves Me Not

    Senior Member
    Japanese - Osaka
    Thank you, dojibear, for your prompt response. Am I to understand this usage of "the" as opposed to "a" similarly to the usage of examples listed below?

    (1) He's the perfect guy for you.
    [I assume here that perfect guys are rare, so people are often tempted to use "the" in front of "perfect guy" instead of "a."

    (2) You have the wrong number.
    [The right number as opposed to the wrong number. People have in their minds the concept of the wrong number as opposed to the right number. I can't explain well how people have come to use "the" here.]

    (3) She is the funny kid (in the class, family, or neighborhood).
    [Not "a" funny kid. When people talk of a funny kid in a specific family, class, or neighborhood, people seem to frequently use "the" instead of "a", although there might be more than one such kid in such a community. I assume that when people talk of any such person with a certain character or trait belonging to a certain community, they seem to be tempted to use "the," as though there is perhaps only one person (or at least very few persons) having that character in the community. ]


    Senior Member
    AE (US English)
    Using "the" doesn't imply "rare". The phrase was "the rare uncorrupted cop", not "the uncorrupted cop".

    She is the funny kid (in the class, family, or neighborhood).
    This implies "the only". In that class (or family, or neighborhood) there is one funny kid -- her.

    You have the wrong number.
    "You have dialed the wrong number." You meant to dial 4368, but you dialed 4367. In this phrase "you have" means "you have dialed", not "you own" or "you possess". That's just time saving by omitting a word. You phoned me. Of course you dialed! I suppose nowadays you hit keys to select a phone number, but we still say "dial".

    A typical phone conversation goes like this:
    Me: Hello?
    Them: Hello. May I speak with Charlie Brown?
    Me: You have the wrong number.
    Them: I dialed 4368. Is that correct?
    Me: This phone is 4368, so you dialed correctly. But this isn't Charlie Brown's phone.
    Them: I'm sorry! Good-bye.

    He's the perfect guy for you.
    This doesn't say that he is perfect. It says he is "perfect for you". That means he is ideally suited to you. Here using "the" instead of "a" implies "the only one (that I know about)" instead of "one (out of several)".

    In English, "a" usually means "one". Sometimes "the" means "the only". Sometimes "the" is like "this/that". And English has several other uses for "the". They may be difficult to understand.


    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    (3) She is the funny kid...

    There is a generally accepted idea that in a group there will always be one person who is "the funny one", i.e. the funniest out of all of them. It's common knowledge that there is always one like that*. When there is common knowledge, then using "a" can often be bypassed. So "the" can be used because everyone knows there is one and the sentence is just identifying her as the one you already know exists.

    * This is a generalization, of course

    I would say this also applies to 1). The concept exists culturally that for everyone there is one perfect match. That doesn't mean it's actually true, but it is a widely known concept. The problem is not whether that person exists, it's whether you will ever find him. So if you do find him, it's right to say "the". He was the one you already knew about, you just didn't know where he was.

    Logically, 2) should probably be "a wrong number" if you are thinking about all possible wrong numbers. But the person is speaking from their perspective. "You have dialed the number that is mine. That is the number that is mine but it's wrong for you."

    OED Loves Me Not

    Senior Member
    Japanese - Osaka
    Thank you, kentix, for your concise, exhaustive analysis. That's about what I've always suspected, although only vaguely and with a shred of self-doubt because I'm just a nonnative. However hard I may have been studying English and however much in English I may have been reading and listening to, I still remain a nonnative and many of my compatriots refuse to listen to my answers to their questions, sticking stubbornly to their misguided conceptions. That's why I very often have to resort to seemingly authoritative grammars, linguistic books, and native speaker answers to confirm the ideas that I've developed over the years.

    Thank you again, kentix, and other native speaker answerers, for your constant support.


    Senior Member
    Similarly, the definite article is often used with "occasional", for instance He was walking around, yelling at the occasional passerby, or I'm always happy to welcome the occasional visitor, etc.