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I am confused whether I should use "a" or "the" when I refer to an object given/identified by some other object.

For example:

The package is now in [a / the] deposit box with the number you received by SMS.

For me this is the deposit box I previously stored the package in, but it seems to me, that for others (including the listener), it is still just some deposit box in the given vault: if I make a typo in the SMS message, my listener may hear from the front desk of the vault:

A box with this number does not exist in our vault.

Regardless of any such mistake, my assumption at the moment of speaking is that the listener will be able to find or identify the box unambiguously based on the number.

Which is the correct article in such situations?

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  • 1
    Without context, it's strictly speaking ambiguous. If the listener had no idea at all about where the package might be then the indefinite article "a" is correct. But if they were aware that it was in a safety deposit box but simply didn't know which one then the definite article "the" is correct.
    – BillJ
    Oct 21, 2023 at 16:55
  • @BillJ thank you for the very insightful comment! Would you care to make an answer from it? I would be very interested to see what other people may comment based on your answer and the one from Edwin Ashworth. Many thanks!
    – morgwai
    Oct 21, 2023 at 17:36
  • There seems little point since you have already accepted Ashworth's answer, which I disagree with.
    – BillJ
    Oct 22, 2023 at 12:21
  • @BillJ I'm definitely not a language expert and at that time (before your comment) it seemed like the right answer. Unfortunately there's no possibility to "unaccept" an answer on this site (as I honestly don't know now which one is more correct), but the whole point of scoring is for the community to decide which answer is more correct (and also exactly for this purpose answers are sorted by score totally regardless of which one is accepted).
    – morgwai
    Oct 22, 2023 at 12:33

1 Answer 1

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(a) The post-modification (identificational here) of deposit box by with the number you received by SMS warrants the definiteness of the preceding article.

  • The package is now in the deposit box with the number you received by SMS.

(b) Here, the non-existence of the box usually trumps the clear identification in the search data:

  • A box with this number does not exist in our vault.

Examples from the internet:

  • A record with this number does not exist in the DB. [Filina Consulting]

  • A field with this number does not exist. [Notes To Paper]

  • "Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 96-93072" on the copyright page; a record with this number does not exist [ISFDB]

However, the specifying post-modifier is not always ignored:

  • If the station with this number does not exist, the file is considered to be unknown [IpeSoft]

This second example involves a style issue, with no 'wrong' answer – though as stated, the non-reality factor usually trumps the 'well-specified' factor.

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  • So if I understand your answer correctly, the general rule seems to be that if my listener should be able to identify the object unambiguously, then I should use "the", correct?
    – morgwai
    Oct 21, 2023 at 15:24
  • 1
    'The package is now in a deposit box with the number you received by SMS' is of course possible if there are various boxes with the same number or the whereabouts of said box are unknown (both hopefully very unlikely), but 'the' is the normally correct choice here. So (with 'identify' including an accessibility caveat) yes. // With a non-existent record, book etc, 'a' is normal. Oct 21, 2023 at 15:36

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