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What is the grammatical difference between a title of a story called:

A girl who wanted to be a boy

and

The girl who wanted to be a boy.

The story is about a girl who discovers she is in the wrong body, and wants to be a boy. Her temper causes an incident, which leaves her brother in a coma. Now she finds herself in the middle of a police investigation, her parents split up, the older boy who is responsible for her brother ending up in a coma, blackmails her - and that is just the start of her problems.

Google books shows both versions:

A girl who wanted to be a boy

The girl who wanted to be a boy

  • @Clare You have substantially changed the meaning of the question. I would recommend you revert your latest edit. – curiousdannii Oct 20 '17 at 13:10
  • Meta discussion – curiousdannii Oct 20 '17 at 13:37
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    As originally worded, this question certainly invited opinion-based answers. But as edited (to frame the question as a matter of grammar), it asks an arguably on-topic question. And since I disagree with the view that editing an off-topic question to bring it on topic is inherently harmful to the OP or to the site, I am voting to reopen the question. As others have noted in other situations, if an OP feels that an edit has hijacked his or her original question, he or she is free to roll back the edit; absent such action by the OP, I'm inclined to assess edited questions on their own merits. – Sven Yargs Oct 20 '17 at 18:43
  • @SvenYargs Okay, but once it's reopened I hope you'll vote to close as a duplicate of the many other articles in titles questions which we already have... – curiousdannii Oct 21 '17 at 3:27
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As noted in Dan's comment (now deleted), it depends on whether that particular girl's story is the focus of the work, or whether the work is more generally about girls who want to be boys (albeit, presumably, while relating what happens to the titular girl).

Compare the books The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas or The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared which are both about very specific characters, with the play A Woman of No Importance which -- while it contains "the woman of no importance" (Mrs. Arbuthnot) -- is not primarily about her: it is primarily a satire on the English upper-class of the time.

From your synopsis:

The story is about a girl who discovers she is in a wrong body, wants to be a boy. Her temper causes an incident, which leaves her brother in a coma. Now she finds herself in the middle of a police investigation, her parents split up, the older boy who is the guilty one for her brother to end up in coma blackmails her - and that is just the start of her problems

it feels like the story is more about the girl and the developing situation she finds herself in than it is directly about being in the wrong body (even if -- I'm guessing -- the chain of events is initially sparked by her anger at her feelings not being taken seriously).

In that case, I believe "The Girl Who Wanted to be a Boy" would be more fitting.

  • @Syk - are you the author of this story/account? – Dan May 28 '17 at 9:33
  • @Dan Yes. I am just finishing its last details. – Syk May 30 '17 at 8:01
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    The English version titles of two famous movies—Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped (1956) and Elio Petri's Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970)—use indefinite articles rather than definite articles, even though the individual designated in each case is the central character and focus of the movie. How would you explain these title decisions? – Sven Yargs Oct 20 '17 at 0:37
  • @SvenYargs I don't know either of those, other than what's on imdb. There, the plot summary for the second includes "a biting critique of Italian police methods and authoritarian repression" so although Volontè may be the central character, and the "teller of the story", it appears (with superficial knowledge) that he is the vehicle to tell the story, rather than the subject of the story. The first does appear to be a story about the main protagonist, so -- yes -- my first instinct might be to use "The..." instead of "A...", though I might have chosen "The Man Who Escaped". – TripeHound Oct 20 '17 at 7:14
  • @SvenYargs Unless there is a fully proscriptive rule on this matter that I don't know (and I'd welcome an answer from someone who knows one), then I think all one can do is develop guidelines on when one is more correct than the other. Many cases will, I believe, be clearly better as "A" or "The" but some could be either/or and – ultimately – it's up to the author (or film studio etc.) to make a call. Does that make the question "opinion based"? Possibly, but I think there are sufficient cases where one option is "right" and the other "wrong" to attempt to solidify those guidelines. – TripeHound Oct 20 '17 at 7:42
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The grammatical difference between definite noun phrases and indefinite noun phrases used in titles that refer to the titular character are the same as the grammatical difference between definite noun phrases and indefinite noun phrases elsewhere. Thus, to determine the 'best' or 'correct' option for any given title is to understand the actual grammatical points and proceed accordingly.

To start, notice that English does not have the "specific article" and the "unspecific article" but the definite article and indefinite article. That is, the English articles mark for definiteness, they do not mark for specificity. Definiteness and specificity are different aspects/qualities of a noun phrase (although most native speakers of English are unaware of this and often conflate the two). See for example Lawler's Distinction between definiteness and specificity at SE: Linguistics.

Thus a noun phrase can be at least three things:

(a) definite and specific

i) I married the woman of my dreams. Her name is Marge.

or

ii) I'm looking for the policeman but I can't find him.

(b) indefinite and specific

i) I married a woman from Illinois. Her name is Marge.

ii) I'm looking for a policeman but I can't find him.

(c) indefinite and not specific

i) I want to marry a woman from Illinois.

ii) I'm looking for a policeman but I can't find one.

(bii and cii are directly from Lawler.)

Note the 'combination' definite and not specific is either unknown or rare in English, so that to my knowledge, a definite noun phrase is by default also specific. This does not mean, however either that (i) definiteness and specificity are the same, or the widely misheld understanding that (ii) the indefinite article refers only to non-specific referents. (Again see the Lawler above.) And for more on the difference between definiteness and specificity see , among others, Barbara Abbott, Definiteness and Indefinite.

Per Abbott and many others, the major difference between definiteness and indefiniteness is that the former marks whether the speaker assumes his hearer can identify which referent the speaker refers to. This is true whether the speaker's assumption is correct or not. But this does not cover all uses of the definite noun phrase; for example definite articles, again contrary to popular belief, are also used to introduce a new topic into a discourse (see, for example, Richard Epstein).

Thus, The girl who wanted to be a boy is a noun phrase that is both definite and specific.

In a title or in narration itself, this refers to a definite, specific girl who wanted to be a boy. Grammatically speaking, as a title alone, the author is presenting the character as one his reader is able to identify. Pragmatically, it draws the potential reader into the story because there's a sense of "shared identity" between author and reader. If we've not read the novel before, this identification comes from the novel. (The author wants us to read the novel after all.) Looked at another way, the definite noun phrase is used to introduce the new topic (that of the specific girl who wanted to be a boy) into the discourse (which is the novel itself).

Either way, the use of the definite article, not surprisingly, gives the title a sense of definiteness. There's no "vaguery" going on. We know immediately from the title that we are meant to be able to identify the titular character. For a real life example, consider the title

The Lord of the Rings

Grammatically, the author is not being vague here. He's being definite, even if it may take some while for the reader to identify who the titular character is. (As a side issue, note that there is a whole lot going on in the novel besides the story of the titular character. Note also that The Lord of the Rings is the title of a novel that because of historical reasons was published in three parts.)

For the same on a less epic scale, there's

The Cat in the Hat

As we've seen above, grammatically A girl who wanted to be a boy can be either indefinite and specific or indefinite and non-specific. In most cases it will be the former because the novel is about a specific character. Consider the novels

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood (1964)

and

An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro (1986)

These titles use indefinite noun phrases. They are each about a specific character, but the grammatical notion of definiteness is not included. The titles/noun phrases are indefinite but specific. Grammatically this means that by the title alone the author has not assumed that the reader will be able to identity who the referent is. This is, literally, a more indefinite approach, one that lacks definiteness. But it does not mean that the novel will be any less focused on the titular character than had the novel used the definite article to present him or her. Again, see Abbott for more on the technical differences between definiteness and indefiniteness. She's written several papers on the subject.

  • 2
    +1 This is a very sound answer. Ultimately, both The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and A Girl with a Dragon Tattoo would be defensible names for a novel, but each conveys its own sense of what the book's approach to its main character might be—and I think that the definiteness of the initial identification of both girl and tattoo carries real weight. – Sven Yargs Oct 20 '17 at 18:24

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