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I know I have asked a similar question before but this time I have examples taken from COCA and they do puzzle me. I would love to hear explanations from native speakers.

The following (incomplete) sentences taken from COCA show three different ways of article usage before "reduction of something".

(1) $1.5 billion could be used for things like restoration of fish and wildlife, the reduction of mercury pollution and greenhouse gas reduction.

(2) Fasting imposes a reduction of calorie intake, which is particularly significant if the hours of darkness are few

(3) A key goal of the optimization phase is reduction of communication over-head via a range of techniques, including execution of communication in parallel

Can you say "a reduction of mercury pollution" instead of "the reduction of mercury pollution" in (1)? Likewise, can you say "the reduction of calorie intake" instead of "a reduction of calorie intake" in (2)? If you can, what difference in meaning would that make in each case?

My guess is that, in using "a", the speaker (or writer) has in mind some image of what is to be reduced, whereas in using "the", the speaker (or writer) has in mind more of the fact of reduction itself than what is to be reduced, lacking a better description.

Even if my guess is right, (3) still remains to be explained. Is the lack of article before "reduction of communications over-head" a case of ellipsis? If not, why don't you need an article here as in the other two examples? What difference does the absence of an article make in comparison with "the reduction of communication over-head" or "a reduction of (in) communication over-head"? Can you or should you use "a" or "the" in this case?

In addition, there is another issue in (1). There is no article in front of "restoration". Why is there no article here, whereas there is a definite article in front of "reduction"?

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The presence or absence of the article has less to do with the abstract nature of the noun and more with the meaning intended to be conveyed in the context. If you set the noun and its (abstract) type aside and not let it distract you, you will see the significance of the article. –  Kris Feb 14 '13 at 6:03
    
@Kris: Would you mind elaborating on the meaning intended to be conveyed in the context in each example? I don't see the significance of the article in (1) and (2) if (3) is permissible. Also in (1), what would be the difference of the meaning intended to be conveyed between saying, "restoration of fish and wildlife" as in the original sentence and saying instead, "the restoration of fish and wildlife? Let's assume that the latter is not a case of anaphoric reference. –  Fairdinkum Feb 14 '13 at 6:38
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1 Answer

The general principle here is just that the focusses on a specific instance of something, whereas a implies one among many possibilities.

Thus in #1, the reduction of mercury pollution implies either that it's just one example of a type of pollution that could be reduced, or that mercury pollution is a clear example of things you might spend $1.5 billion on. But it's optional regardless of the exact sense intended.

In #2, if the hours of darkness are few implies we're specifically talking about how many hours of darkness there are at the time/place of fasting. There's no special grammatical rule applicable here, but idiomatically I'm sure most native speakers would include the in such contexts.

In #3, a range of techniques simply implies that the writer isn't concerned with exactly which range of techniques he's talking about. If in fact he meant the particular techniques actually used by his company, for example, he could have said our range, More rarely, in contexts where he's thinking of the complete range of possible techniques, he might use the definite article. But it would be generally considered "ungrammatical" to have no article at all in this construction.


Note that these are very fine nuances that won't normally apply anyway. In all the "articles" I've looked at above, and in comments below, any of definite | indefinite | zero article could be used, and it's unlikely many if any variations would strike most people as "odd".

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@ FumbleFingers: Thank you for your answer. I should have made it clearer but in #2 and #3, I was asking about "a reduction" and "(zero-article) reduction" respectively. Would you be able to help me with the intended sense in those instances? –  Fairdinkum Feb 15 '13 at 1:33
    
@Fairdinkum: Ah. Well, I think it's just more of the same really. Of course in many contexts it's meaningless to distinguish between this/any of whatever follows the [zero-]article; use either or neither, it makes no difference. I slightly prefer "a" to be there in #2, but "the" or [zero-] are fine, and can't really have different nuances. All forms do occur, but #2 represents the most common for those exact words. In #3, the same principle would have applied, I think, but stylistically one doesn't want to repeat another "a". So the version with [zero-] is actually best there. –  FumbleFingers Feb 15 '13 at 1:50
    
@ FumbleFingers: Thanks a lot! I am relieved to hear that many cases which I thought had to be grammatically one way or another are in fact a matter of preference. –  Fairdinkum Feb 15 '13 at 3:23
    
@Fairdinkum: Some things aren't just preference though. The article before reduction of mercury pollution in #2 can be there or not, pretty much as you wish. But you can't do the same before greenhouse gas reduction. I don't know how to formulate the "rule" there, but I'm sure all native speakers would agree you can't possibly use the. And for many, a is probably a bit "odd". –  FumbleFingers Feb 15 '13 at 5:14
    
@ FumbleFingers: Yes, I see your point. I can't explain why, but I know if you are to say "the greenhouse gas reduction", it must be referring to something mentioned earlier, unlike in the case of saying "the reduction of greenhouse gasses". –  Fairdinkum Feb 15 '13 at 6:40
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