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The New York Times article (November 9) titled, “The Fiscal Cliff Opener” begins with the following sentence.

“On Tuesday, voters re-elected a president who promised to fight for higher taxes on the wealthy, for more public investment and for careful cuts in spending. Three days later, President Obama challenged Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts for the middle class, right now, and said he would not accept a deal that does not require the wealthy to pay a bigger share.”

I think I learned that we should use “the,” not “a” for the antecedent followed by the relative pronoun i.e. "that clause" in English language class of high school – it was more than 55 years ago for me.

Why is it “A,” not “The” in the sentence, “voters re-elected a president who promised to fight for higher taxes on the wealthy, for more public investment and for careful cuts in spending.”

The article sounds like to me saying U.S. voters happened to re-elect a president out of a lot of presidents who ever promised to fight for higher taxes on the wealthy, for more public investment and for careful cuts in spending as well as President Obama.

I don’t think there were so many U.S. Presidents who actually promised a set of agenda for raising taxes on the wealthy, increasing public investment, and cutting spending, and President Obama was just one of them.

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You need to re-examine that 'rule' if possible, and if you're remembering correctly, ditch it. Would you choose 'Firefly is a man whom I could never accept as President' or 'Firefly is the man whom I could never accept as President'? Some rules of thumb may be handy, but it's useless being all thumbs. In this case, as the answers given state, what matters is whether we're talking about a specific or generic 'P/president' or candidate - and, in spite of Mr Obama being obviously specific, the context grades more towards genericness (a less Conservative man). –  Edwin Ashworth Nov 10 '12 at 11:21
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I like this question; it shows that the primary difference between when to use definite and indefinite articles isn't always as cut-and-dried as standard rules might indicate. As is said here often, English is a flexible language, and most rules have plenty of exceptions that apply in certain contexts.

In this case, could the writer have used the instead? Sure. However, if that were my sentence, and I used a definite article, I would punctuate it differently:

On Tuesday, voters re-elected the president, who promised to fight for higher taxes on the wealthy, for more public investment and for careful cuts in spending.

Notice the added comma after the word president.

I like the original wording better, though; it seems to flow better. Although the indefinite article makes the sentence appear to have been written in a general sense, it really hasn't.

For example, if I say:

Voters re-elected a president who promised to fight for higher taxes on the wealthy, for more public investment and for careful cuts in spending.

then that sentence, taken by itself, could indeed refer to any president, of any country, at any time in history, who got re-elected on that platform. It could be talking about, say, former president Bill Clinton, or to Sauli Niinistö of Finland.

What makes it refer to Barack Obama, then, instead of some other president? In a word, context. In this case, that context is provided by a few key facts:

  • This sentence was published in a newspaper, not a history book
  • The newspaper is a U.S. publication
  • The editorial was published just days after the U.S. 2012 election
  • The sentence begins with, "On Tuesday..."

Taken together, those four pieces of information make it very obvious that the phrase “a president” refers to Barack Obama, the 2012 incumbent U.S. president. So, the sentence works. Even though the indefinite article would allow that sentence to refer to any president, that particular sentence doesn't refer to any president – context won't permit that.


As a footnote, this is why I've consistently praised the way you write questions on ELU. Had you merely said, "In this sentence, who does the article refer to?" then the question might have stirred a contentious debate. Instead, you began with a citation:

The New York Times article (November 9) titled, “The Fiscal Cliff Opener”...

Some might wonder, "Why would I need to exclude extraneous information like that?" No – that information is not extraneous, it's vital to understanding the sentence. Otherwise, the exact same sentence, word-for-word, could refer to something entirely different:

On Tuesday, voters re-elected a president who promised to fight for higher taxes on the wealthy, for more public investment and for careful cuts in spending. On Wednesday, riots had erupted in the streets of Dankoon, leaving dozens of people dead, and over 100 buildings burned to the ground. President LeMonde wasn't going to let that happen this time, which is why, on the eve of Election Day, soldiers had been deployed to every major city across the province. Post-election rioting wasn't going to become a tradition in Denov – not under his watch.

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Your rephrasing: On Tuesday, voters re-elected the president, who promised to fight for higher taxes on the wealthy, for more public investment and for careful cuts in spending. makes everything in the sentence after president a free modifier. (And, on the whole, I'd now opt for capitalising President here.) The original uses 'everything in the sentence after president' not as a free modifier, but to restrict the type of president chosen. As for the complexities surrounding the usages of a and the, Cobuild (Collins) have a monograph of over 100 pages on just those delights. –  Edwin Ashworth Nov 10 '12 at 11:36
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@Edwin: Yes, I realize that's how it shifts the meaning of the words in the sentence – but I think it reads better that way when the article "the" is used. Thanks for the elaboration, though, and for the reference, too. P.S. I'd also accept your suggestion to capitalize "President" in my reworded sentence. –  J.R. Nov 10 '12 at 11:47
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@JR ~ you are making the common mistake of thinking that in every instance of 'one', it should be 'the'. This is not the case at all. It is irrelevant that everybody know it is Obama that is being spoken about, and he is just one guy. Obama is still a president, a member of the group 'presidents'. If you look out of the window and see a lion, you say "OMG! A lion!" even though there is only one lion in the garden, because that one lion is a member of the group 'lions'. –  Roaring Fish Nov 10 '12 at 14:08
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@RoaringFish: Yeah, but you'd say "OMG! The President's atop a lion!" if Obama were in the garden riding the lion while smelling the roses (and the garden were in the USA). –  user21497 Nov 10 '12 at 14:46
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J.R. was right to refer to that 4th-grade English textbook: "I'm rubber. You're glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks right back on you!" Only children and the insecure argue by echoing the words of disputants and treating them as traducers instead of peers or colleagues with different points of view. Life is compromise: You win some, you lose some, but it's still possible to maintain one's dignity without railing prematurely against the night. –  user21497 Nov 11 '12 at 2:06
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If you are talking about a President with a capital P, then it should be a the because there is only one President of any given country.

In your sentence though, it is a president with a lower-case p, and hence a generic president. In "voters re-elected a president who promised to fight for higher taxes on the wealthy" they are referring to one president out of the group of 'presidents', which is why it gets the indefinite a.

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If the sentence were voters re-elected the president who promised to fight for higher taxes on the wealthy, the implication would be that there were two or more presidents (not presidential candidates) to choose from. –  user21497 Nov 10 '12 at 11:08
    
RF: I think you've missed the boat here. There is no "group of 'presidents'". Only one president was in office, and only one president got elected. I'd entirely agree with you if the sentence said, "I like visiting the U.N.; you never know when you might see a president." But, in the O.P.’s sentence, the author is most certainly not referring to "one president out of a group." –  J.R. Nov 10 '12 at 11:43
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JR ~ If I said "Bush was a controversial president" would you tell me it should be "Bush was the controversial president"? –  Roaring Fish Nov 10 '12 at 13:54
    
RF: Everything depends on context. That sentence, taken at face value, would be comparing him to other presidents. Bush was a controversial president, Pierce was not. But that one counterexample doesn't mean that "a president" refers to one of a group in every instance. I don't need to compare Obama to other presidents for the Times article to make sense. Moreover, when I read that sentence, I don't think "Oh, in this instance, the author means to intentionally convey that Obama is just one president out of some larger group." Language doesn't always work as advertised in 4th-grade textbooks. –  J.R. Nov 10 '12 at 16:04
    
Most of the time, it depends on what the speaker intends to say. You attach far too much importance to context. Sometimes context matters; sometimes it doesn't. Please, tell me in what circumstances a is not refering to one member of a group. If it is more than a single member you use they. If it is a unique individual with no group, you use the. –  Roaring Fish Nov 11 '12 at 9:07
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You’re right in thinking that a president means a president out of many possible presidents. The writer uses a and not the to make a generic reference to the whole class of presidents. It is possible in principle that any president could be one ‘who promised to fight for higher taxes . . .’ It just happens to be the case that one out of all such presidents has just been re-elected.

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