This structure has a width of 16 meters and a height of 30 meters.


This structure has the width of 16 meters and the height of 30 meters.

Considering the fact that every object has one of the dimensions of width and height, can we use the definite article as in the second example sentence? Which is more conventional?

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    @BladorthinTheGrey This site has not adopted a standard dialect of English. American as well as British spellings are welcome. – MetaEd Aug 25 '16 at 17:40
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    @BladorthinTheGrey That's spelling, not grammar. – Scimonster Aug 25 '16 at 19:14
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    In English, we use feet ;) #killme – spacetyper Aug 25 '16 at 21:43
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    @spacetyper Only in American English. If you go to a store in the UK, you won't find any products for sale measured in feet and inches. – alephzero Aug 26 '16 at 5:54
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    @spacetyper in 19th century measurement countries you do ;) – Helmar Aug 26 '16 at 8:42

The first sentence is certainly correct and more conventional. The second sentence seems wrong. Consider:

This structure has the length of a long tractor trailer and the height of a large oak.

Here, "the" has the effect of comparing the length (height) in question to the length (height) of a definite or specified object.

According to this reasoning, your second sentence refers to "the width of 16 meters." What is the width of "16 meters"? "16 meters" in itself does not have a width.

To turn matters around, consider this:

This structure has a length of a long tractor trailer and a height of a large oak.

In this case, "a length of" begs for a definite or specified length, such as "16 meters." "A long tractor trailer" is not a length. You could say, "a length of the length of a long tractor trailer," but why would you want to do that? :-)

For a discussion of definite ("the") and indefinite ("a", "an") articles, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Article_(grammar).

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    Note, "This structure is the length of a long tractor trailer and the height of a large oak" would be correct. – Jack Aug 25 '16 at 15:02
  • Don't disagree. Was trying to answer the question without rewriting the sentence.@VictorWu did a fine job of the latter. – Richard Kayser Aug 25 '16 at 15:29
  • This bench has the width of 20 meters i.ytimg.com/vi/7UwX07SyeVQ/maxresdefault.jpg – Pete Kirkham Aug 26 '16 at 9:25

The first version is more conventional.

But to make the sentence even simpler and more readable, you can simply say:

The structure is 16 meters wide and 30 meters tall.

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    The second one is not just "less conventional" it's completely unidiomatic and in fact doesn't make sense strictly speaking, since it's talking about the height that is "posessed by" 30 meters, which doesn't make sense. – Max Williams Aug 25 '16 at 15:15

The second form is wrong. In that form, you'd say "a width of".

Try another example:-

A cat has a nose. (Correct)

A cat has the nose. (Incorrect)

More than one width (or nose) exists in the universe, so they have "a" width or nose.

However it is normal to say

The width of the structure is 16 metres.

The nose of the cat is black.

In this case you're talking about that one width (or nose) possessed by the structure (or cat), so saying "the" width or nose is OK because the structure (or cat) only has one of them.

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  • "A cat has the nose" ... Correct, if the nose originally came from a dead mouse. – alephzero Aug 26 '16 at 5:56
  • @alephzero Good point. :) – Graham Aug 26 '16 at 8:51
  • My grandfather has the heart of a lion and a lifetime ban from Edinburgh Zoo. – onedaywhen Aug 26 '16 at 13:57
  • @onedaywhen Also nice. :) But actually both of those prove my example. In Alephzero's example, a more complete version of the sentence would be "A cat has the nose of the mouse", and his/her version relies on context to know that "the nose" belongs to the mouse. Yours is clear that it is "the heart of a lion". A mouse only has one nose, and a lion only has one heart. – Graham Aug 26 '16 at 16:12
  • @onedaywhen Just in passing... Playing on that ambiguity, there's a Terry Pratchett gag about a group of five old soldiers between them having nine arms, eight legs and 23 ears, with a footnote about Mad Eric showing his "collection" to suitably-impressed children. (Names and numbers will probably be wrong, but I can't find the exact quote immediately. You get the idea anyway.) – Graham Aug 26 '16 at 16:13

The second form would be appropriate only in cases where there was an earlier reference to a "height of one meter", and would likely come across as stilted even then, e.g. "The dog will need to practice jumping with objects at heights of 1.0m, 1.5m, and 2.0m, depending upon desired classification. This table has the height of 1.0m."

Situations involving "the" with a measurement are much more common if there is an additional adjectival phrase qualifying the measurement, e.g. "This hammer has the 5kg mass necessary to drive ACME nails," or "This device has the short 2cm height needed for it to fit below the shelf." Even those, however, could often be improved as e.g. "The 5kg mass of this hammer is sufficient to drive ACME nails", or "The 2cm height of this device is short enough to let it fit below the shelf."

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  • Measurement is an interesting example of when the can work. Good examples. – Richard Kayser Aug 26 '16 at 11:42

'a width' and a 'length' would be considered correct usage in England and in any case metres (meters) may well become as odd as Rods, Poles etc. in linear measurement. 'Correct' use of the English language was set out in Fowler H.G OUP 1906 , Clarendon Press, Oxford. But that work has lost favour even in Oxford.

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  • Why would metres become outmoded? The metre is the SI unit, and used almost exclusively everywhere except the US and, to some extent in the UK (even the Canadians use metric measurement). The sooner we consign the imperial measures to history the better as far as I'm concerned (though I'll still want to buy beer in 600ml glasses). – BoldBen Sep 8 '16 at 19:15

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