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Although we know that day which we are talking about, why don't we say "What the beautiful day!" instead of "What a beautiful day!" ?

In addition, a friend of mine explained the following, but in my mind it is not persuasive—it has not convinced me yet. I am confused.

Generally, we use 'a' for a generic thing, when many of them exist, and use 'the' when there is only one of them. This also depends on the context. Here, we've experienced many other days, and will most likely experience many more, so it's 'a' beautiful day. For another example, you might go to purchase 'a car' (since the place you're going has many), but might take 'the car' to work (if you only own one car yourself). In politics, you would have 'a Senator' (since there are 100, and two to each state), but 'the President' (since there is only one at a time).

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    Your last paragraph is a reasonably concise statement of the difference between definite and indefinite articles. The first two pragraphs imply either that you understand it but don't believe it (in which case how do you expect us to help?) or that you somehow don't think it applicable to the example. In that case, consider that "What a beautiful day!" is meaningless unless it is a comparison to other days; I have heard that in desert countries people use the phrase when it is raining. – TimLymington Dec 28 '13 at 16:55
  • Collins has: what: . . . 3. (intensifier; used in exclamations) what a good book! >> One could imagine the common expression developed from perhaps 'What a good choice of book' (from all the possible choices) or (notionally!) 'What a beautiful member of the set of all days'. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 28 '13 at 16:56
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    While nobody says, "What the beautiful day," one sometimes hears, "This is quite the beautiful day" where here, the meaning is this day fits the very definition of the quintessential beautiful day – Jim Dec 28 '13 at 17:29
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    No, we use the when the identity of the thing has already been established (by pointing, by uniqueness, by shared understanding of the speakers, or by previous reference). When an object is first introduced into discourse, it nearly always uses the indefinite article. Your a senator will become the senator if, after first mentioning him or her, you then go on to discuss him or her further. – Colin Fine Dec 28 '13 at 22:03
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Your friend is almost there, but the key here is that in "what a beautiful day", the day does not refer to the day at hand at all. The day at hand is omitted from the sentence. "What a beautiful day [it is]", "What a beautiful day [this day is]". This becomes clearer still if you look at the same construction in closely related languages such as German. This day here is a beautiful day. One of many. There can be any number of beautiful days.

As Jim points out in a comment, "one sometimes hears 'This is quite the beautiful day', where the meaning is 'this day fits the very definition of the quintessential beautiful day'". So again, even there the day does not refer to the day at hand. It refers to the one quintessential day.

Lastly, "What the [expletive]" is a very common swearing. Making "what the beautiful day" actually sound quite funny, as if you were mincing your words.

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When used in this way as an exclamation, What is followed by a(n) with a singular countable noun, and by the noun alone when the noun is plural or uncountable. It’s probably best to consider it as an idiom, in which you have to take the expression as a whole without analysing its component parts.

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Note: This is a response to nima_persian's answer to his or her own question.


You are right that the response would also use the indefinite article, but this is true in similar contexts not starting with the What a ... ! exclamation. For example, "Jack's a happy baby!" - "Yes, he's a very happy baby!" and so on.

The statement is that Jack is a baby who is happy. The response agrees that Jack is a baby who is happy. If you use the definite article Jack is the happy baby, then you are implying that of the babies to whom you are referring Jack is the one who is happy.

Similarly What a beautiful day! means that this is a day which is beautiful, and the response agrees that this is a day which is beautiful.

Note, however, that if you make day the subject of the sentence, you must use the definite article: Yes, the day is beautiful.

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"Beautiful Day" doesn't specifies a certain day. Monday could be beautiful, sunday may also be beautiful. "What a beautiful day" just emphasize the emotion. same as "What a beautiful girl!"

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