When writing about the same thing in several sentences, mainly in definitions, I am often confused about when to switch from the indefinite article to the definite article. Which rule can be applied to this?

Consider this example:

Suppose we have a tree T and a vertex v in T. We say that the vertex v is a leaf in the tree T if its degree is 1.

In the first sentence, I would use the indefinite articles, because I only introduce the terms to the reader.

In the second sentence, however, I would prefer to use "the vertex v", since I have already introduced it and it is clear for both me and the reader what we are talking about. Similarly, I would prefer to use "the tree T". On the other hand, I would use "a leaf", because this term has not been mentioned before.

Is that correct? Or maybe I am just overusing the articles?

This is just a minimum example, maybe trying to be a little too expressive. But I am sure there are real-world situations, where such a switch from the indefinite articles to the definite ones must be made. And I am just wondering how to do it properly.

  • 2
    Your use of the articles in that sentence, and your explanation of why you have used them, should give you no concern. Jun 27, 2012 at 9:51

3 Answers 3


I think your description of why you used each article is very close.

In general, we use "the" when the thing is the only one, or we are referring to a specific one. We use "a" when it is an indefinite one of many. Whether there is one or many depends on context: When we use "the", we are not necessarily saying that this is the only one in the history of the universe, but the only one relevant in the present context.

For example: (a) "I entered a room full of strangers. A man named John approached me." There could be many men named "John" there, so I should use the indefinite article. (b) "I met three men who said their names were Bob, Paul, and John. The man named John approached me." Now in context there is only one relevant man named "John", so I should use the definite article.

In your example, the first sentence introduces the tree and the vertex. So at that instant, they are indefinite. But once you have introduced them, they become definite. So the first reference is "a tree T" but after that it becomes "the tree T". Now that you have named it, there is only one. (This assumes that you do not have two trees and call them both T. As in a context like this you're inventing the names, I assume you would not do this.) The same would apply in more conventional contexts. "I entered a room full of strangers. A [indefinite] tall man approached me. The [definite] tall man said ..." Once the context narrows the focus to an individual example, it becomes "the".

The vertex is "a" leaf because at this point in the context, the tree could have many leaves. So it is one of many. You could say that we are focused on one leaf in the sense that we have identified the leaf that is vertex v, but from a grammatical point of view, it is the vertex that is definite. The concept of leaf has just been introduced, and that is not definite yet. If a tree could only have one leaf, then it would be "the". Like: "As v has no parent, it is the [definite] root of the tree." As a tree can only have one root, we use the definite article.

I've probably just taken a simple subject and made it sound very complex. :-(

  • What an exhaustive explanation, thank you! By the way, why do you use 'definate' instead of 'definite'? I wasn't able to find such a word in dictionaries, but at the same time I am almost certain you use it intentionally. Jun 28, 2012 at 11:52
  • No, that was just a clumsy mis-spelling. Oops. And I see I did it several times, but not every time. Hmm.
    – Jay
    Jun 28, 2012 at 13:40

Your use of articles is impeccable.

I note, though, that in that particular sort of technical writing, articles are often omitted; so in a mathematics paper

Suppose we have tree T and vertex v in T. We say that vertex v is a leaf in tree T if its degree is 1.

would be quite normal. (Note you still need a before leaf, because leaf is not named). But in general writing, the articles should be as you have given them.

  • Thank you very much for your response @Colin. I agree that it is a common practice to omit the articles in technical writing. Despite that, I still tend to use them, because I consider it more natural. But maybe I should just drop it and stick to the "unspoken conventions"... Jun 27, 2012 at 12:33

Your use of articles is grammatically correct in the example

Suppose we have a tree T and a vertex v in T. We say that the vertex v is a leaf in the tree T if its degree is 1.

However, as you suggest, the example overuses articles. I think the following is more appropriate in a technical-writing context:

Let T be a tree and v a vertex in T. We say v is a leaf if its degree is 1.

  • Thank you for providing another alternative with fewer articles. Jun 28, 2012 at 11:59

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