the uncle of Patrick

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azz

Senior Member
armenian
a. He is the uncle of Patrick.
Does that necessarily mean that he is the only uncle Patrick has?

b. He is an uncle of Patrick's.

Does that necessarily mean that Patrick has more than an uncle?
Could one use this sentence if one did not know if Patrick had more than one uncle or not?

c. He was the assistant of a French physicist.
Does that necessarily mean that he is the only assistant of that physicist?

d. He was an assistant of a French physicist.

Does that necessarily mean that the French physicist had more than one assistant?
Could one use the sentence if one did not know if the French physicist had more than one assistant or not?

All the sentences are mine

My impression is that things are not really clear-cut.

I think if I knew that there was only one uncle/one assistant I would use the 'the versions'.
If I knew that there were more than one uncle/one assistant I would use the 'a versions'.
If I did not know if there were more than one uncle/one assistant or not. I could use both versions.

Many thnaks.
 
  • suzi br

    Senior Member
    English / England
    I think this takes some teasing out, at in general we use definite and indefinite articles in the way you already have been taught and know,

    BUT
    We can use them in slightly different ways, as usual according to CONTEXT

    For example we can use THE to single one out from a crowd, so Patrick has lots of uncles but he is THE uncle who took him on world cruise.

    You could us an uncle when Patrick has other relatives: is an uncle even if he is the only uncle, e.g if you were surveying a crowd at a wedding and you were discussing the relationships. Saying he is AN uncle works even if he is the only uncle. (With mother or father you would use possessive pronouns, that's his mother, that's his father and you could do that with uncle too, but if there were lots of uncles you could say that is one of his uncles.)

    If the number of uncles or assistants is important to your narrative you would not rely on the article to convey it, really. The most natural way to talk is to make things explicit with other phrases, but THE usually does mean the only one.
    AN is more flexible because it might be a figure from a larger crowd, like the wedding party or the whole office context. So we can say he was an assistant even if he was the only assistant but other people had other roles in the office.

    I hope this helps!
     
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