The following is from NY Times.

"The decline is the result of the rise of untraditional business structure, the effects of a more globalized economy, and a labyrinth of subsidies and tax credits."

In the sentence above, the indefinite article "a" is used before "labyrinth". I understand that a definite article is used before a noun when the noun is restricted by an of-phrase, so becomes identifiable. But my question is, what does it exactly mean to restrict a noun? I can see that "effects" from the sentence is clearly restricted by "a more globalized economy". Then, is the reason "a" is used before "labyrinth" instead of "the" is that because "subsidies and tax credits" do not restrict the word labyrinth like "a more globalized economy" does "effects" and they just show some characteristics that "labyrinth" has?

  • It should be "non traditional" rather than "untraditional"
    – Tim
    Sep 29, 2014 at 15:34
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    I think the rules you learn are rough rules of thumb. But it is impossible to get a grasp of the use of articles with rigid school rules. The use depends on what the speaker or writer has in mind. In this case both "the" and "a" is possible. With "a labyrinth" the writer says "the tax system is like a labyrinth", with "the labyrinth" the writer would say "everybody sees this chaotic system as the well-known labyrinth". But he didn't want to say this. As you see rigid school rules lead you astray.
    – rogermue
    Sep 29, 2014 at 16:04
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    I tend to think of English as being a very strict set of rules, each of which has the caveat at the end "except when it isn't".
    – corsiKa
    Sep 29, 2014 at 18:31
  • I've never heard the rule-of-thumb that "a definite article is used...when the noun is restricted by an of-phrase," and I can't say that I agree with it. Yes, it's possible to use an "of-phrase" to restrict a noun for use with "the," but (1) prepositional phrases certainly aren't necessary for using the definite article, and (2) I don't see why "of" is any more likely than any other preposition to indicate that the definite article should be used. Sep 29, 2014 at 19:37
  • Oh, then it is my fault to have mislead you to think that way. I intended to mean that "a definite article could be used". Sorry
    – Huidong Im
    Sep 30, 2014 at 5:03

3 Answers 3


The reason that a is not used with a labyrinth here is because although the phrase has the form of X of Y it is not a partitive genitive construction. Not every X of Y construction is a genitive in the sense that Y owns X. To illustrate ...

  • the dinner of the dog

... equates to

  • the dog's dinner

However, the box of wood does not equate to:

  • the wood's box.

In the example given, the labyrinth doesn't really belong to the subsidies and tax credits. It's more a case of the labyrinth being made of the subsidies and tax credits. So it is not a phrasal genitive.

Having said this, the Original Poster is absolutely correct in thinking that the Prepositional Phrase of subsidies and tax credits does not narrow down which labirynth we are talking about - and that this is why the author uses a instead of the. It is not working like a restrictive relative clause. It is merely attributing some characteristics to the labyrinth. If the description did explain which labyrinth we were talking about, then the author would have used the - but it doesn't.

It should be noted here that a phrasal genitive will not always show us exactly which person or thing is being talked about. For example, if we are talking about a long period in French history, then a particular king of France is just one of many kings. In this situation we could still talk about a king of France because of France is not enough to tell us which king of France we mean.

  • Thank you again. As a serious English learner, I owe you a great deal!
    – Huidong Im
    Sep 29, 2014 at 17:07
  • @HuidongIm, To make the point that the description doesn't explain which labyrinth we're talking about more concrete, consider that a different set of subsidies and tax credits would constitute a different "labyrinth," so "of subsidies and tax credits" doesn't specify a specific "labyrinth." Sep 29, 2014 at 19:40

The decline is the result of ... a labyrinth of [things].


The decline is the result of ... the labyrinth of [things].

Here, a means something that is proposed to exist that is labyrinthine in structure or concept.

the would mean something that is arguably well-known to exist, and the only or major example.


"a labyrinth" here means a sort of labyrinth, it's not a known, not a definite labirinth, therefore they used "a" in the sentence.

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