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1.

Enabling the 'show-copy-button' option adds the 'copy' button to the toolbar.

2.

Enabling the 'show-copy-button' option adds a 'copy' button to the toolbar.

This is just of the one examples, but I came across similar sentences relatively often. On one hand, there are multiple buttons, and you are adding another kind of a button, just like every other button. Perhaps this button can even be configured such that it can be basically the duplicated version of an existing button.

On the other hand, the exact 'copy button' refers to a specific thing.

So which is it?

Thanks in advance.

(Please don't close this question as a duplicate, I know how the articles are applied. I just can't apply it to this case because it somewhat differs from some languages I speak, I really am not sure whether this item would be considered specific or generic)

  • 2
    There are some cases where either article is valid, because the resultant difference in emphasis has no practical effect. Here, you have deduced that "the copy button" implies there is only one; and "a copy button" implies a particular kind of button (of which there are many). Either works: which is more appropriate depends on which nuance you want. – Andrew Leach May 11 at 20:38
  • @Andrew Leach, thanks for the response! I ended up leaning towards the use of a/an for the ambiguous cases, since it doesn't imply something is really specific, and it helps to cut down on repetition. – Lacey May 14 at 11:55
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Both the sentences are grammatically correct. But technically, the 1st sentence is correct because the 2nd one implies that multiple copy buttons can be added to the toolbar. This answer is in accordance with multiple such softwares like MS Word, LibreOffice, etc. There is no such existence of multiple types of copy buttons in any text editor my knowledge. So the 1st sentence is more appropriate.

  • In the end, I agree with this answer in this specific example, although in general I found that a/an fits better where it is truly ambigious. Thanks for the response! – Lacey May 14 at 11:54
  • I agree. This question is open-ended and highly case dependent. – PranavGupta53535 May 14 at 14:44
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My current opinion in the ambigious cases is to lean towards the use of a/an.

In the specific example, as @PranavGupta53535 notes, the makes slightly more sense.

However, there are cases where it is more ambigious or mixed. I.e. a CLI app where there are several actions that can be applied in certain contexts, behaving differently depending on the case. In such cases, it makes more sense to say <x> applies a fix procedure to <y>, given that there are multiple different fix procedures, it just so happens they all share the same name, and called with the same command, fix.

And a slightly less important reason is the flow of the text. I find that the appears more often than a, and I also find that a sentence where the word the appears two times instead of three times makes for better reading. One must keep the repetition in check, after all.

Ultimately this shouldn't matter too much to the reader, not many people are going to assume such detailed meaning from the use of these articles.

I am not going to mark my own answer as the answer since that seems like a disrespectful thing to do to the other person who answered, but these are my own conclusions in case someone wonders the same thing in the future. Pick your poison :)

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