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    #1

    Question A/An vs The

    It is not at all unusual for ______ editor to tamper with _____ writer's manuscript.
    ( Fill in a/an/the)


    This question came up in the verbal ability portion of a local competitive exam. The doubt one of my students had with the question concerns the use of the article 'the' in the second blank. Her logic was that the 'editor' has been mentioned in the context and so any 'writer' on whose manuscript the editor might be working, will become 'known' or 'definite,' hence giving us reason to use the definite article. What I tried explaining her was that the context is insufficient to think so, and that treated as a pure grammatical question, the statement should be taken as a generic one in which case we'll go with 'an' in the first blank and 'a' in the latter. I told her that this would be so since both the editor and the writer have been mentioned for the first time in the context and hence will take indefinite articles.

    Please provide further insight on why the second blank cannot use 'the'.




  1. Raymott's Avatar
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    #2

    Re: A/An vs The

    Firstly, I believe you are wrong in assuming that 'the' cannot be used. You refer to a context. There is no context. There is an isolated sentence (I assume from an exam page).
    From the point of view of grammar, you could use either the indefinite or definite article in either position in that question. The rule about using "the" if something is identified doesn't have any bearing on isolated sentences like "I want an/the apple". They are both grammatical.

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    #3

    Re: A/An vs The

    Thank you for your views. I believe you're right when you say that the usage of both a and the is grammatical. Please note that I did mention that the 'context' is inadequate. You rightly mentioned that the sentence is an isolated one, but isn't that exactly what makes in incorrect to use 'the' in this case, since using 'the' would bring up the question 'which' that would then go unanswered. Just as in the case of your example - "I want an apple" (any apple). "I want the apple" (which apple?). Is it really grammatical to leave a sentence incomplete and hanging like this? That is what my query is about.

  2. Raymott's Avatar
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    #4

    Re: A/An vs The

    Yes, I can see your point. Is it appropriate to leave a sentence hanging? Perhaps on an exam it is. It seems that that's what you've done, unless you've taken that sentence from a paragraph that was also on the exam. Otherwise, any grammatically correct answer should be marked right. (If that was the question; you didn't actually say what the direction to students was.)
    I still say that there must be a context. When you go to a zoo, there might be a sign outside, saying, "Please don't feed the animals". Now, you might ask why "the"? 'Animals' hasn't been referred to yet? But 'the' is right. However, if you put the sentence "Please don't feed ... animals", the correct answer would depend on the question. It could be "the, my, our, any ..." - they are all grammatical. If the task is to make a grammatical sentence from an incomplete one, any grammatical sentence should be marked correct. If the instruction is to supply the most common word, "the" would be the correct answer.
    Perhaps others would agree with you, but I think you're trying to apply a rule that is only applicable in a context to an isolated sentence.

    By the way, I think your student's argumentation is also wrong.

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    #5

    Re: A/An vs The

    The argument doesn't work for me- editors work on manuscripts, so we need a mention of one to make the manuscript specific. You could argue for a/a or the/the, but a/the doesn't follow from her explanation.

  3. MikeNewYork's Avatar
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    #6

    Re: A/An vs The

    For me, the opening statement "It is not all unusual" sets up the following words to be some sort of general rule. This general rule could apply to the known actions of a particular editor or to editors in general. If it refers to a specific editor, I would use "the editor"; if it refers to editors in general, I would use "an editor". No matter which article is used for editor, I would use "a writer's manuscript". It does not make sense to me to formulate a general rule that applies to a specific manuscript.

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    #7

    Re: A/An vs The

    Thank you Tdol...Mike...! Mike's explanation about the opening statement setting the tone for a generic statement makes complete sense. This is exactly what I had in mind but was failing to put into words and explain somehow. I know what to say to my student now. But part of my question also revolves around how such a question might be solved usually. Often, competitive exams in my country come up with grammar questions like these. All they provide is random statements like these and paired options to fill in the blanks. Now, how can one decide whether to just use basic grammar to answer them or use a little contextual logic to approach such questions? That's what I was wondering.

  4. MikeNewYork's Avatar
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    #8

    Re: A/An vs The

    These questions can be very tricky. I would use whatever I have to make the selections. Contextual logic should not be ignored. If I were a student taking this test, with no further information, I would use "an"..."a". That would be most common.

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    #9

    Re: A/An vs The

    I agree with Mike that I would expect the required answer to be "an/a". However, as the others have said it is perfectly possible to use other combinations. In fact, in the right context, all of these could be used:

    It is not unusual for the editor to tamper with the writer's manuscript.
    It is not unusual for an editor to tamper with a writer's manuscript.
    It is not unusual the editor to tamper with a writer's manuscript.
    It is not unusual for an editor to tamper with the writer's manuscript.
    Remember - if you don't use correct capitalisation, punctuation and spacing, anything you write will be incorrect.

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