This question excludes 'default' used in court or 'a default' for an indefinite future (e.g. setting a default option). My question pertains to circumstances where the context behind the question or sentence is known and 'default' means using one option over other options. I found that sometimes people use indefinite articles, but I could not figure out the reason behind it.

For example, how would you interpret these three questions differently?

1) "Is this a default behavior?"


2) "Is this the default behavior?"


3) "Is this default behavior?"

What if I were to drop the the noun? Is that going to change anything?

  • I think "Is this a default behaviour" should be incorrect, because there is only one default and hence necessitates a The. – ffledgling Mar 9 '13 at 19:26
  • I thought so too, but after googling and seeing a plethora of usage of 1), I started to doubt myself. – Forethinker Mar 9 '13 at 19:53
  • I've personally heard it being used very often, but somehow it always logically seemed wrong. I'm not an expert on the subject though. I hope someone who is can clear this up. – ffledgling Mar 9 '13 at 23:10
  • The phrase "Is this a default behaviour" could be taken to mean 'is this behaviour a default one, or is it configured to do that". There is not always one default; there is often no default. The person asking may not know whether there is a default behaviour or not. – Carl Smith Mar 12 '13 at 3:15
  • @CarlSmith: I think you are right. It is just that I have found intermixes of usage in the computer world, especially among programmers. Some people assumes that there are defaults for all configurations (hence the default behaviors), while some do not. But I am starting to see that this is not a grammatical issue per se, but more of a conceptual issue. – Forethinker Mar 12 '13 at 8:44

Computer programmers are not in general linguists, or even native speakers of English, and often comments/documentation are kept quite short and cryptic, so their usage is not necessarily correct or standard, although it can become so as they set up the terminology for their new application.

For me the use of "a" implies that that there are multiple (or possibly no) defaults. One complex system might have many components and make or require many decisions, defaulting to different defaults for unspecified parameters based on this complex context (when thinking at system level or the level of a multiplicity of systems). For example, 0 and 1 are both defaults for the first index in an array, depending on language, and sometimes (as in Perl) a settable default. But generally, the assumption is there is exactly one default in the context currently in view, and "the" is appropriate. Omitting the article completely is possible, but not as natural as either article (as appropriate for the context and level of discussion), but would indicate you are interested in it as an example of default behaviour rather than as a or the specific default behaviour.

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