In "Cambridge preparation to TOEFL"'93 book I've found the phrase:

The old woman made a special tea with __ herb that smelled of oranges.

The correct answer is "an". But the woman added the specific herb, not just a herb. The herb is determined by the phrase "that smelled of oranges".

Would this phrase be grammatically/semantically correct, if we use "the" instead?

If there is any difference, tell me the British version of this.

  • 1
    Both are quite acceptable. An is less specific, as you pointed out, but perfectly fine, even with the further description. If there was only one herb that smelled of oranges, the would be appropriate (but not strictly necessary); or the can be used to emphasize that the herb smelled of oranges. As a native speaker, I would have chosen an, because to me, it reads primarily as an herb tea, not tea made with orange-scented herbs. – anongoodnurse Nov 11 '16 at 18:38
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    True, there is only one herb, but an is singular. That... I don't think 'that' determines which determiner one should use; that can often be dropped without changing much, e.g. "...a special tea with __ herb smelling of oranges." (yes, I had to change smelled, but I hope you see my point. I'm not a linguist, btw. Maybe one will come along and give a more definitive answer. :) – anongoodnurse Nov 11 '16 at 18:50
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    It's not "that" that determines the article in your example. Using the definite article "the" assumes that the reader is familiar with the herb that is being talked about, i.e. they can identify the specific herb that smelled of oranges. Otherwise it must be the indefinite "an", which I think is the most likely option here. – BillJ Nov 11 '16 at 18:57
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    Prototypically, the definite article "the" functions as determiner in NP structure with the sole meaning of identifying that the head is sufficient in the context to identify the referent. If I say "the herb that smelled of oranges", I assume you know which herb I'm referring to. – BillJ Nov 11 '16 at 19:13
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    The point is that there may well have been more than one herb that smelled of oranges. Only if the reader is familiar with the referent of the particular "herb" that is being discussed can the definite article "the" be used. Your book is correct. – BillJ Nov 11 '16 at 19:47

The old woman made a special tea with __ herb that smelled of oranges.

Note that the herb smelled -- past tense. This means that the smell was experienced at the time the tea was being made, vs referring, say, to an herb which "everyone knows" smells of oranges.

Thus, "that herb that smelled of oranges" would be inappropriate, unless the story had somehow previously introduced the herb and mentioned its smell. On the other hand, "that herb that smells of oranges" would be quite acceptable, as it implies that the reader, if he's aware of the nature of such herbs, knows what is meant.

On the other hand, "an herb that smelled of oranges" works, since no prior knowledge is required, but "an herb that smells of oranges" is at least stretching things.

"The herb ..." is similar to the that case.

  • Curious -- three downvotes and no one has explained what's wrong. – Hot Licks Nov 16 '16 at 21:44

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