0

The Senate late Thursday passed a House-approved bill to raise the debt ceiling and cap government spending for two years, sending the legislation to President Joe Biden’s desk .

https://www.cnbc.com/2023/06/01/debt-ceiling-bill-updates.html

Why is an "a" article being used here? The article describes a specific one-of-a-kind bill that saves the country from a default, not just some random bill. Shouldn't "the" be used instead?

10
  • On the specific issue, there may have been multiple bills proposed, of which one was chosen; you'll have to research that. More generally, the Senate and House both pass a lot of bills, this is just one of them, so from that point of view "a" is fine, although "the" could also work. You seem to think this is one-of-a-kind and unique but similar things happen every couple of years. But this is for Politics SE.
    – Stuart F
    Jun 2, 2023 at 9:21
  • 1
    'House-approved' is a distraction here. 'The Senate passed a bill to raise the debt ceiling and cap government spending for two years' is standard usage. The bill is not mentioned previously (in the passage we're looking at here). Apparently, the Senate has previously passed quite a few similar bills (sanctioning the raising of the debt ceiling). Though some post-specification follows, it is really descriptive rather than uniquely identifying. Contrast 'Congress passed the Bill of Rights in 1789'. Jun 2, 2023 at 10:18
  • @Edwin Ashworth Why is this a distraction and not a specification? "House-approved" make this bill specific, one of a kind, not one of many. Everybody understood what bill we are talking about. Jun 2, 2023 at 11:01
  • 1
    To aid OP I want to highlight the line : "The article describes a[[the]] specific one-of-a[[the]]-kind bill that saves the country from a[[the]] default, not just some random bill" : The reason for choosing "a" over "the" is Almost Exactly the Same here.
    – Prem
    Jun 2, 2023 at 11:04
  • 1
    "The article describes a specific one-of-a-kind bill that saves the country...": So does the sentence "the article describes a specific one-of-a-kind bill that saves the country," yet you used the indefinite article "a" in the phrase "a specific one-of-a-kind bill." Why? "But it WAS precisely identified": not until later. The sentence you're asking about is the first sentence in the article.
    – phoog
    Jul 2, 2023 at 21:10

2 Answers 2

1

Why is an "a" article being used here? The article describes a specific one-of-a-kind bill that saves the country from a default, not just some random bill. Shouldn't "the" be used instead?

The bill has not yet been identified in the article. In fact, one function of this first sentence in the article is to identify the bill.

A lot has been made of the large number of similar bills that were not passed. This is irrelevant. Consider:

There is a family living down the road called the Joneses who are very difficult to keep up with.

It's a specific family we've identified here, but we won't start referring to it as "the family" until the next sentence (or the next clause).

The first act of the newly formed legislature of the newly independent country was to pass a bill designating a seat of government.

Here we use "a" twice even though there aren't any other similar bills and there is only one seat of government.

The most compelling conclusion to draw from the inconsistency called out by this question is that the usual rules given for definite and indefinite articles are woefully oversimplified. I looked at several pages describing such rules, and none of them described this use of the indefinite article. The closest said that the indefinite article is used to indicate membership in a group, as in Jaroslav Tavgen is a Stack Exchange user. But that doesn't really fit.

Even the assertion about identified versus unidentified individuals doesn't quite tell the whole story, because there are formulations where one uses the definite article in identifying an individual. For example

The car that crashed into the post office was found to have faulty brakes.

Perhaps this example can help us to explore the difference:

This morning, the police found a car that had crashed into the post office last night abandoned in the school parking lot.

This morning, the police found the car that had crashed into the post office last night abandoned in the school parking lot.

The second one does imply that the reader already knew about the post office having been struck by a car, either because it was mentioned earlier or because it was common knowledge, but that implication is fairly weak. If I saw the second sentence above as the lead of a news report, I might think "the indefinite article is better here," but not "that's wrong."

Note that the thing being identified in these examples is the subject of the sentence or the subject of a relative clause. In the example in the question, it is direct object.

Still, if additional identifying details are added in a relative clause or participial phrase, one can use the definite article. For example

The Senate late Thursday passed the House-approved bill that raises the debt ceiling and caps government spending for two years, sending the legislation to President Joe Biden’s desk.

Another example:

The Senate late Thursday passed the House-approved bill raising the debt ceiling and capping government spending for two years, sending the legislation to President Joe Biden’s desk.

As I write this I am coming to the conclusion that identification on introduction is indeed sufficient to trigger the definite article (or another determiner) but here the infinitive phrase describing the purpose of the bill doesn't count as identification. Instead, it is a description of the bill's purpose or of the senate's purpose in passing the bill.

-1

The comments have largely provided the answer to your question, but here it is in answer format:

Let's start by simplifying the sentence to the minimum needed for our question:

The Senate late Thursday passed a House-approved bill to raise the debt ceiling

The subject is the senate, and the direct object is a bill, which is described as being house-approved and having the purpose of raising the debt ceiling. Whether you treat the object as 'a bill', 'a house-approved bill', or 'a house-approved bill to raise the debt ceiling', in all cases this noun is a member of a class - many such bills have been put forward this year, and many more in the past. Thus, the generic article 'a' is used.

The sentence could be constructed to use 'the', if the author wished; for example,

Late Thursday, the Senate also passed the bill the house had approved to raise the debt ceiling.

Which the audience presumably interprets to be the most recent such bill from context.

If anyone knows a formal way to determine which descriptions are part of the object and which are descriptions of the object, I'd be glad to hear it and include it in the answer.

2
  • 1
    I think it would also be OK to say "the House-approved bill". This construct assumes that the bill is already a known entity.
    – Barmar
    Jun 2, 2023 at 21:03
  • "many such bills have been put forward this year, and many more in the past": this fact is not necessary to explain the use of "a," because it would also be correct to use "a" if the bill were the first such bill ever proposed.
    – phoog
    Jul 2, 2023 at 21:15

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.