Which of the following is grammatical?

  1. Is there a best school?
  2. Is there the best school?

I'm sure that the first one is right. But why?

  • I take it your primary language doesn’t have articles. Is that right? – tchrist Jan 29 '13 at 2:25
  • @tchrist not every language that does have articles would use the indefinite one there. Just because English has feature X, doesn't mean it uses it in The One Right Way. – RegDwigнt Jan 29 '13 at 15:28

The is the definite article. A is the indefinite article.

The question "Is there a best school?' is, by its nature, indefinite. Ergo, a.


It is necessary to determine the meaning of the question. Does it mean

  1. Does there exist a school that we would consider to be "the best"?
  2. Is the best school (which I know exists) in the particular location to which I am pointing?

Without more context, most native English speakers would interpret the question as in number 1. In that case, the declarative form of the sentences would be

There is a best school.

This is an adverbial use of there meaning

(3.) (usually there is/are) used to indicate the fact or existence of something: there comes a point where you give up

The sentence means that a best thing exists, but we are not indicating which particular school is best. The reference is indefinite as to which school merits the title, so the indefinite article a is used.

If the intended meaning is that described in number 2, the declarative sentence would be

There [pointing] is the best school.

In that case, there is used as an adverb meaning

(1.) in, at, or to that place or position: we went on to Paris and stayed there eleven days

If that was what was intended, a particular school is being identified, and the definite article the would be used. However, most English speakers would not use this construction.

  • 2
    Although in a conversation I could imagine someone saying, "Is there the best school?" while pointing at a map. – Jim Jan 29 '13 at 1:47
  • Yes, but in that context, the indefiniteness is about the location, not the identification of the institution. Further, "Is that the best school?" is definite that there is a best school, and the indefiniteness is about the identification. A subtle parsing. – bib Jan 29 '13 at 1:51
  • Ok thanks bib. But there is a problem with my teacher he is saying that if we create a question with the superlative we shouldn't change the article. I need an strong argumentation. He just don't get it. – user36662 Jan 29 '13 at 8:16
  • @user36662 See expanded answer. – bib Jan 29 '13 at 15:17

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