The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane.
           — Chapter 1 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: The Dark Lord

According to this web site, English native speakers use the definite article in front of a noun when they believe the hearer/reader knows exactly what they are referring to. But the sentence above is the very first sentence in Harry Potter and the Deathly hallows. We don't know anything about the two men and the narrow, moonlit lane.

I looked up the use of the definite article on books and the Internet. But I couldn't find out why the definite article is used in front of that nouns.

Could you explain why the definite article is used?

  • 4
    The English definite presupposes a unique contextually salient referent to the noun phrase. But we are very good at accommodating to presupposition failures of this sort. So beginning a story with one is fine, it just makes you wonder more about filling the missing information that you (as a reader) aren't yet party to. – Alan Munn Jan 1 '15 at 7:25
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    If two men appeared out of nowhere that would just be setting the scene. But when THE two men appear out of nowhere that immediately tells the reader, "Hey! Pay attention! This is important!" It grips your attention. This is just one of many examples of how J.K. Rowling is highly skilled at capturing the reader's attention and keeping the story moving. – Hot Licks Jan 1 '15 at 15:04

It is true that "English native speakers use the definite article in front of a noun when they believe the hearer/reader knows exactly what they are referring to". For example: I went to a party last night. The party was boring, but I enjoyed the fireworks.

In this case the definite article in the second sentence is being used to refer back to the party introduced in the first sentence. This type of reference is called anaphoric.

But the definite article can also be used as a forward-looking (or cataphoric) reference. And this is how it is being used in the Harry Potter text.

This passage from Discourse Analysis For Language Teachers (p42) has the following explanation:

Forward-looking or cataphoric reference often involves pronouns but it can involve other reference items too, such as the definite article.

The author cites two examples from Newsweek:

... which underline the most characteristic function of cataphoric reference: to engage and hold the reader's attention with a 'read on and find out' message. In news stories and literature, examples of cataphoric reference are often found in the opening sentences of the text.

The definite article in "the narrow, moonlit lane" has a similar function, namely to entice us to read on and discover the exact setting of this particular lane. Contrast Rowling's sentence with one using articles according to the 'rules' of the web site you refer to:

Two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in a narrow, moonlit lane.

It is clear how very much better Rowling's version is.

  • Outstanding answer; truly. – Venture2099 Jan 1 '15 at 16:39
  • It's all well and good, but we'd have to dig deep enough to read some teacher's book to figure this out? There must be something wrong with how the English grammar is being taught. – JK2 Mar 31 '16 at 14:22
  • @JK2 This is an unusual usage restricted to story-telling. – Aeon Akechi Jun 30 '16 at 16:15

In Rowling's first sentence beginning with "The two men ..." you have to insert "The two men (of whom I'm going to tell you) appeared out of nowhwere ...". A literary device. Of course, you ask what two men and you read on to get to know more. It is a literary device to create a certain suspense. Astonishing that stylistics has invented a term for this use, even if the Greek term cataphoric is in my view probably not the best. In order to translate it I think of "Use of the definite article with reference to later information".

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