Rules say

Use A(AN) when talking about a thing which is new, unknown, or introduced to a listener for the first time.

At the same time, they say

The definite article is used when the speaker talks about a specific object.

Now let's look at the following sentence. This is a commit message for the version control system I'm trying to write correctly:

Added a/the/Ø prototype for a/the/Ø bar() function

On the one hand, I mention this function and its prototype for the first time, but on the other hand, I talk about specific objects. So which articles should I use?

  • 2
    You could say "the prototype" or "a prototype", depending on whether it is expected to be the only prototype for that function, or whether you or others may write a second or additional prototypes for that function. Assuming the "bar function" is a specific one, you need the. – TrevorD Apr 17 '16 at 14:53
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    I don't know where your "Rules" came from: altho' they may be helpful guidance, I don't consider them definitive. Certainly "the" refers to a specific single item, and "a" refers to one or more items of the same type. But I wouldn't say that "new, unknown, or introduced to a listener for the first time" necessarily require the indefinite article - it depends what you're referring to. – TrevorD Apr 17 '16 at 14:59
  • The second guideline takes priority over the first. The first guideline is for sentences like "A cat sat on the mat.", where the cat isn't sufficiently specified to use the. In the prototype example, use whichever combination of articles communicates your intent about the uniqueness of the prototype and of the function. – Lawrence Apr 17 '16 at 15:10
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It's more complex than you may suspect.
Specificity is different from definiteness, and must be distinguished from it.

An indefinite article can mark either a non-specific, descriptive NP, as in

  • I'm looking for a policeman, but I can't find one.
    (a policeman here means 'anyone fitting the description of a policeman')

or it can mark a specific individual NP, as in

  • I'm looking for a policeman, but I can't find him.
    (a policeman here means 'some individual policeman, who is known to me')

Furthermore, there's just no general rule for usage of English articles. Article grammar is a disorganized mass of idioms and specialized contexts, like I dialed the wrong number.

| improve this answer | |
  • Please clarify what your initial "Not quite" refers to, especially bearing in mind that the order of answers & addition of comments can change the sequence of items. – TrevorD Apr 17 '16 at 18:28

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