I'm puzzling over a difference in sense between two expressions as I've seen them in titles of texts. Here they are with examples:

A Brief History. Brief modifies history, which here seems to refer to the genre of text being written - history as overview or as a narrative focused on progression over time. It is a brief history, the indefinite article denoting that other histories may be written, but this is one of them. Time is not brief; the history is brief relative to the thing being written about. (For time, "brief" is a whole book! For the internet, that's a few paragraphs.)

A Brief History of Time

A Brief History of Triplet Repeat Diseases

A Brief History of the Internet

The Brief History. Brief modifies history, which here seems to refer to the actual span of time or series of events in question: "Americanitis," Volumetric Filmmaking, and the city of the Dead are all brief phenomena. The focuses on this concept: there is only one definite history of this concept, and the title specifies that it tells this history.

The Brief History of "Americanitis"

The Brief History of Volumetric Filmmaking

The Brief History of the Dead

What creates this difference feels subtle in a way that goes beyond conventional article guides. The article is definitely involved in creating a difference, but I have trouble generalizing to other examples. So I have two related questions:

A. What explains this? Is it:

  1. History referring to both a kind of text and a kind of narrative?
  2. Brief, as an adjective, highlighting how a quality of history might be understood differently?
  3. A or the, as articles, signalling whether history is more likely to be indefinite or definite?
  4. Attributable more to context (title convention), idiomatic patterns, or other things?

B: Are there examples of this principle working with other article+adjective+noun combinations, or is it distinct to this?

  • Pretty straightforward difference between definite and indefinite IMO. It’s the definitive history or one of many possible histories. Here history refers to the text and genre, not events. But of course if it’s the definitive text, that blurs the line between text and events.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 14:01
  • @Dan Bron I'm not sure I follow how "the history" has to refer to the text and not to historical narrative. Is that its context within a title? Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 21:51

1 Answer 1


A Brief History indicates the class to which the present work belongs, "Brief Histories".

A Brief History of The Roman Empire

The Brief History of X refers to X's history in particular. X has been, or was, in existence for only a brief time.

The Brief History of Pet Rocks
The Brief History of Disco

P.S. It's also possible that a particular brief history may come to be regarded as the definitive, quintessential brief history of its subject, the best of them all:

As brief histories of the Roman Empire go, this one is the brief history.

  • This feels logical, especially the hypothetical at the end. Just for the sake of fleshing this out, what role do you think the adjective plays in all of this - is this still true without the adjective, or with another adjective ("A Long History" v. "The Long History?") In this latter case, it feels like the same semantic shift doesn't happen, and that both can refer to the length of events rather than the length of a text. (Compare: "The Plight of the Palestinians: A Long History of Destruction" v. "The Long History of New Media.") I suspect that "brief" is a special case; what do you think? Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 22:00
  • A wide variety of adjectives in the pattern The { adjective} History of X would be understood to apply to the subject of the treatise, or to the subject's "story", rather than to the text of the treatise itself, not just "brief". For example, The Tragic History of the Mexico Grand Prix.
    – TimR
    Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 22:35
  • The Strange History of Bonnie and Clyde or The Mysterious History of the Honeybee or The Convoluted History of French Fries or The Sad History of Climate Policy or The Sexy History of Bacon.
    – TimR
    Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 22:44

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