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Like: "quite the singer", "quite the writer", etc. while he/she is just a singer/writer and is not the only singer/writer, etc in that context.

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theonion.com/articles/… –  ShreevatsaR Feb 15 '11 at 9:15
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I think all of the answers so far either don't attempt to answer the specific question "why do we use the definite article", or else give an answer that is wrong. Unfortunately, I believe this is because there isn't an answer: it is an idiom, and not analysable. –  Colin Fine Feb 15 '11 at 14:14
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5 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Quite a (and quite the, sometimes used ironically) indicates that the specified thing or thing is recognized as notable, remarkable, or impressive.

Quite a party, isn't it?
It has been quite a year.
Quite the little horsewoman, aren't you?

Quite the thing is a dated way to say socially accepted.

She was quite the thing in heels and stockings and lipstick.

[The examples are taken from the NOAD]

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+1 for noting that "quite the" (as opposed to "quite a") is generally ironical, or condescending. –  Colin Fine Feb 15 '11 at 14:02
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Stating "Quite a [noun]" indicates that one is notable, while stating "quite the [noun]" is remarkable.

It is mostly the difference between the indeterminate (a—or, just another [noun]) and the determinate (the—a specific [noun]).

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We use the definite article to show uniqueness.

This case, saying "quite the singer" suggests that the singer is unique in some way -- e.g. being noticeably more talented than the others.

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Doesn't "quite a singer" also mean that the singer is noticeably more talented than others? –  ShreevatsaR Feb 15 '11 at 11:47
    
@ShreevatsaR Yes. But I would say that's omitting an adjective such as "good". –  Nathan MacInnes Feb 15 '11 at 12:24
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I disagree with this answer. I don't think it shows uniqueness at all: it is about this person being an outstanding singer, there is no comparison made or implied with other singers. Consider the (slightly old-fashioned) "He's looking quite the gentleman!" –  Colin Fine Feb 15 '11 at 14:00
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I agree with @awm as in cases where one says quite the [noun], he wishes to indicate a specific trait of the [noun] that even among its commonalities makes a difference.

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As noted by @ColinFine, "quite the X" is simply an idiom. It's not any sort of standard grammatical construction and so cannot be explained according to standard grammatical rules. Other idioms that include inexplicable instances of "the" include "what the hell," "the hell you say," and to be "for the asking."

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