I am trying to decide which should be more correct grammatically in the abstract of my paper.

In this paper, we describe an environment. . . .


In this paper, we describe the environment. . . .

Since I am writing about custom made tool/environment, should I use the or an?

By environment I mean custom tool/application to perform common measuring activity (for engineering topics). So, I guess I can not decide if I should use the because it is a custom tool, or an because it made to perform common measuring tasks.

closed as unclear what you're asking by tchrist, FumbleFingers, user66974, Edwin Ashworth, aedia λ Aug 11 '14 at 21:52

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    Does it have trees in it? Environment anywhere except outside is a metaphor, and it means what you want it to mean. Without the rest of the context, nobody can tell what you ought to be saying. – John Lawler Aug 10 '14 at 20:27
  • Agreed. The answer is "it depends", just... not on what I think you think it depends on :-) We could probably give good guidance with the rest of the sentence. – guifa Aug 10 '14 at 20:46
  • Is it an environment (of which multiple may exist) in which the apparatus might be utilized, or is it the environment encompassing the apparatus? – SrJoven Aug 10 '14 at 20:57
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    Even without further clarification, realistically, this is almost surely to call for "an", because OP is describing a tool which is novel but not, of necessity, unique. – Dan Bron Aug 10 '14 at 20:57

In my physics writing, I generally used the indefinite article (a/an), as in

In this paper, we describe a system of randomly moving, weakly interacting particles...

Even if what we were talking about was a specific thing, like a method:

We discuss a novel method for solving such problems...

The reasoning, as mentioned by @brasshat, is that by using "the" we would imply some kind of uniqueness to our system or method. In physics, anyway, there are many ways to skin a cat, and it is presumptuous to phrase things in a way that makes it sound as though you've got the only working solution. Even if you indeed have the only working solution, it's still a matter of etiquette to use "a/an".

  • sure, it's "an" in the sense the OP asks about. good one. – Fattie Aug 11 '14 at 7:07

I expect either "the" or "an" would be correct grammatically. From a practical standpoint, if you are absolutely certain that you have created the only possible environment, then by all means use "the". If, however, there is a chance that you or someone else might create a different environment, use "an". My own advice would be to use just a bit of humility, and use "an", and let others describe it as "the".

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