Why use "the" before "wrong number"?

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Hello.

I'm a Japanese learning English and have a question for which I have been wishing to find explanation but unable to for quite some time.

My question is: I do not understand why you use "the" in the expression "You dialed the wrong number" and other similar expressions involving the word "wrong."
I understand I have to say "You dialed the correct number" since there is only one correct number.
But as for the "wrong number," it seems logical to me to say "You dialed a wrong number," because it is out of many possible wrong numbers that you dialed the very wrong number you dialed.
To say "the wrong number" gives me the impression as if there was only one possible wrong number you could dial.
Do you understand what I am saying?
If you do, could you explain the meaning of the "the" in "You dialed the wrong number"?

Thank you in advance.
 

MikeNewYork

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naoki said:
Hello.

I'm a Japanese learning English and have a question for which I have been wishing to find explanation but unable to for quite some time.

My question is: I do not understand why you use "the" in the expression "You dialed the wrong number" and other similar expressions involving the word "wrong."
I understand I have to say "You dialed the correct number" since there is only one correct number.
But as for the "wrong number," it seems logical to me to say "You dialed a wrong number," because it is out of many possible wrong numbers that you dialed the very wrong number you dialed.
To say "the wrong number" gives me the impression as if there was only one possible wrong number you could dial.
Do you understand what I am saying?
If you do, could you explain the meaning of the "the" in "You dialed the wrong number"?

Thank you in advance.

That's a good question. One could surely use "a" there. Once one has a dialed a number, it is a specific number, even though there are many other possible wrong numbers. If one views it as one of many, one would use "a". If one views it as a specific number that turned out to be wrong, one would use "the".
 
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oichi

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Thanks Mike.

(I registered myself to this site and changed my user name from naoki to oichi.)

I'm glad that I finally got an explanation for my long-standing question.
So that's the meaning of the "the" when you say "You dialed the wrong number."
I see.
But it still feels a little bit weird to me.
For example, when you see someone on the street, can you say "You have the nice haircut" because it is a specific haircut that turned out to be nice?
Or do you have to say "You have a nice haircut" in this case?
If you can only say the latter, what is the difference between this and "You have the wrong number"?
There probably is a difference here that affects the use of an article (a/the) but I don't know what that exactly is.
And if you could explain this difference for me, I would probably get a clearer understanding of "the" in "the wrong [something]."
 

Tdol

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'You have a nice haircut' sounds better, because there are many nice many ways to cut hair.;-)
 
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oichi

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tdol said:
'You have a nice haircut' sounds better, because there are many nice many ways to cut hair.;-)

Thanks tdol for your comment. :)

But as I pointed out in my original question, the very reason I am having this question is that there are many wrong numbers you can dial too.
If you are talking about one specific instance among many other possibilities in both cases, why do you usually use "a" in "a nice haircut" and "the" in "the wrong number"?
I feel there might be a logical difference between the two situations that results in the two different choices of the article (a/the) but I don't know what that is.
Or is it just a grammatical quirk that has resulted in the regular use of "the" in "the wrong something," making it an idiomatic expression?

Is my question making sense to you? :?
 

Tdol

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It's the wrong number because it is mine and I am only interested in that one number. You could call ten thousand wrong numbers and I wouldn't care or know, but if you disturb me, then it matters. ;-0
 

MikeNewYork

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oichi said:
Thanks Mike.

(I registered myself to this site and changed my user name from naoki to oichi.)

I'm glad that I finally got an explanation for my long-standing question.
So that's the meaning of the "the" when you say "You dialed the wrong number."
I see.
But it still feels a little bit weird to me.
For example, when you see someone on the street, can you say "You have the nice haircut" because it is a specific haircut that turned out to be nice?
Or do you have to say "You have a nice haircut" in this case?
If you can only say the latter, what is the difference between this and "You have the wrong number"?
There probably is a difference here that affects the use of an article (a/the) but I don't know what that exactly is.
And if you could explain this difference for me, I would probably get a clearer understanding of "the" in "the wrong [something]."

IMO, one says "a nice haircut" because it is not the only nice haircut, not because there are other ways to cut one's hair. If one felt that you had a one-of-a-kind nice haircut, one could say you have the nicest haircut. In that case "a" wouldn't work.

Article selection and use is one of the most difficult areas of English to master. Much of it follows rules and makes sense. Some of it is idiomatic and must just be learned.
 
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oichi

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tdol said:
It's the wrong number because it is mine and I am only interested in that one number. You could call ten thousand wrong numbers and I wouldn't care or know, but if you disturb me, then it matters. ;-0

Thanks again tdol.

What you are saying sounds interesting and seems to have shed some light on this question for me.
But it still doesn't completely dispel the uncertainty I am feeling about this.
You know there are sometimes things that everybody else seems to see no problems with but only you seem to feel a persistent dissatisfaction with?
Like you cannot grasp the feeling everybody else is feeling?
This question may be something like that for me.
So if you could bear with my questioning a bit more and help clarify this for me so I can also grasp the "right feeling," I would be very happy. :)

OK, this number is mine and I am interested in only this one number.
But doesn't the caller on the other side also say "Oh, I seem to have dialed the wrong number"?
If he does, why does HE say so, considering it is not HIS number and there are so many other wrong numbers he can dial?
Likewise, it seems to me that you can look at "a nice haircut" from the other side.
I mean, for the person who had a nice haircut, that haircut is his and he is only interested in that haircut.
But he says "I had A nice haircut."

Please consider this situation.
A teacher asks students to buy a specific textbook and bring it to the next class.
In the next class, one student brings a book which is not the one the teacher intended.
Here, does the teacher say "you got THE wrong book" or "you got A wrong book"?
Unlike "You dialed the wrong number," that wrong book is not the teacher's.

How about a situation like this?
Two men are looking for a specific woman they know in the street.
One man says "Isn't that her?" pointing at a woman walking in front of them.
The other man understands that it is not her.
Here, does the other man say "That's the wrong person" or "That's a wrong person"?

Do you use "THE wrong..." in the above two situations too?
If so, I just came up with my own hypothesis about this "the."
Could you assess how plausible this explanations is?
My hypothesis is that it has to do with the word "wrong."
That is, "the wrong book" is more specifically limited than "a nice haircut."
Unlike nice or not nice haircuts, there is only one correct book.
This fact makes any books other than one correct book the wrong books.
So while there are many possible wrong books you can bring to the class, any one of them is specifically the wrong book.
On the other hand, neither nice nor not nice haircuts are specifically limited.
What do you think of this explanation?

Thank you for reading my long post.
I know what I'm saying sounds confusing because I am a little confused too. :oops:
 
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oichi

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MikeNewYork said:
Article selection and use is one of the most difficult areas of English to master. Much of it follows rules and makes sense. Some of it is idiomatic and must just be learned.

Yes, I feel that the use (and non-use) of the article is THE most difficult aspect of English grammar for me. :roll:
It's partly because my native language Japanese doesn't have the grammatical element of the article.
But I think that even when two languages use the article, their ways of using it is often different, because the cognitive rationale behind its use is specific to the languages and you often have to learn each specific cases of the article use.
 

Tdol

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It is a very difficult area for Japanese learners- I know this well as I have a Japanese partner. In the example of 'the wrong book', we use the definite article because we are only interested in the one book you brought in contrast to the one you didn't; we aren't interested in the thousands of other wrong books you could have brought. So, yes, Oichi, I do agree with your analysis.;-)
 
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oichi

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Thanks tdol.

These would (hopefully) be my last questions on this subject.

1. How about the second example, "That's the wrong person" or "That's a wrong person"?

2. Do you always use the definite article "the" before the adjective "wrong"?
If there are cases in which you don't use the definite article before "wrong," could you give me an example?

3. How about in a situation like this?
A teach is about to ask a question to a student.
Does the teacher say "If you give me the wrong answer, you have to take a test tomorrow" or "If you give me a wrong answer, you have to take a test tomorrow"?
In this case, the speaker is not talking about a specific answer.
Or, in this case too, do you consider any wrong answers as specific and use the definite article "the"?

Thanks.
 

Tdol

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1- Generally, I'd say 'the wrong person' because there's a specific reason why they are wrong. However, it might be possibleto thinkof a way of using the indefinite article- I can't come up with anything, but might after I've had my coffee. ;-)

2- He took a wrong turning and got lost opn the way to my house. (Many wrong turnings)

3- I think you could use either here.
;-)
 

Casiopea

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oichi said:
OK, this number is mine and I am interested in only this one number.
But doesn't the caller on the other side also say "Oh, I seem to have dialed the wrong number"?
If he does, why does HE say so, considering it is not HIS number and there are so many other wrong numbers he can dial?

Hello, :D

I'm going say what everyone else has said but I'm going to use different words. :wink:

Sam: Hello?
Max: Hello. I'd like to order a pizza.
Sam: Pizza? Sorry. The number you (have) dialed is wrong.

Another way of saying "The number you (have) dialed is wrong" is "You have dailed the wrong number".

"The number" refers to a specific number, as tdol said, the number you are calling. There is only one number registered with the location you are calling and that number is different (i.e. chigau) from the one you want to call.

the number is wrong ~ the wrong number


a nice haircut

Pat: That's a nice haircut!
Sam: Thanks. :D

There are many kinds of haircuts, and of those many, Sam has one--not "the one" as Mike has explained, but just one of the many.

Another example
Sam: Please lend me a pencil.
Max: What kind of pencil? I have several kinds.
Sam: A nice one. (Meaning, any one pencil in your case)

or

Sam: (pointing) The nice one there. (pointing = specific)

or

Sam: The green one. ('green' = specific)


Please consider this situation.
A teacher asks students to buy a specific textbook and bring it to the next class. In the next class, one student brings a book which is not the one the teacher intended. Here, does the teacher say "you got THE wrong book" or "you got A wrong book"? Unlike "You dialed the wrong number," that wrong book is not the teacher's.

Teacher: Did you bring your workbooks?
Student: Yes. Here it is.
Teacher: That's the wrong workbook.

the workbook (I asked you to buy) is wrong ~ the wrong workbook.

"I asked you to buy" modifies "workbook" and makes "workbook" specific and so "The" is added.


How about a situation like this?
Two men are looking for a specific woman they know in the street.
One man says "Isn't that her?" pointing at a woman walking in front of them. The other man understands that it is not her. Here, does the other man say "That's the wrong person" or "That's a wrong person"?

Pat: There's Miki!
Sam: No. That's not her.
Pat: Yes, it is!
Sam: That's the wrong person. :cry:

the person (we are looking for) is wrong ~ the wrong person

"we are looking for" makes "person" specific, and so "The" is added.

Yoroshiku :oops:
 

Casiopea

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oichi said:
OK, this number is mine and I am interested in only this one number.
But doesn't the caller on the other side also say "Oh, I seem to have dialed the wrong number"?
If he does, why does HE say so, considering it is not HIS number and there are so many other wrong numbers he can dial?

Hello, :D

I'm going say what everyone else has said but I'm going to use different words. :wink:

Sam: Hello?
Max: Hello. I'd like to order a pizza.
Sam: Pizza? Sorry. The number you (have) dialed is wrong.

Another way of saying "The number you (have) dialed is wrong" is "You have dailed the wrong number".

"The number" refers to a specific number, as tdol said, the number you are calling. There is only one number registered with the location you are calling and that number is different (i.e. chigau) from the one you want to call.

the number is wrong ~ the wrong number


a nice haircut

Pat: That's a nice haircut!
Sam: Thanks. :D

There are many kinds of haircuts, and of those many, Sam has one--not "the one" as Mike has explained, but just one of the many.

Another example
Sam: Please lend me a pencil.
Max: What kind of pencil? I have several kinds.
Sam: A nice one. (Meaning, any one pencil in your case)

or

Sam: (pointing) The nice one there. (pointing = specific)

or

Sam: The green one. ('green' = specific)


Please consider this situation.
A teacher asks students to buy a specific textbook and bring it to the next class. In the next class, one student brings a book which is not the one the teacher intended. Here, does the teacher say "you got THE wrong book" or "you got A wrong book"? Unlike "You dialed the wrong number," that wrong book is not the teacher's.

Teacher: Did you bring your workbooks?
Student: Yes. Here it is.
Teacher: That's the wrong workbook.

the workbook (I asked you to buy) is wrong ~ the wrong workbook.

"I asked you to buy" modifies "workbook" and makes "workbook" specific and so "The" is added.


How about a situation like this?
Two men are looking for a specific woman they know in the street.
One man says "Isn't that her?" pointing at a woman walking in front of them. The other man understands that it is not her. Here, does the other man say "That's the wrong person" or "That's a wrong person"?

Pat: There's Miki!
Sam: No. That's not her.
Pat: Yes, it is!
Sam: That's the wrong person. :cry:

the person (we are looking for) is wrong ~ the wrong person

"we are looking for" makes "person" specific, and so "The" is added.

Yoroshiku :oops:
 

Francois

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Here's my go.

In the case of the phone number, there is only one right phone number, so it's fine to say 'the right number'. IMO, 'the wrong number' is just a parallel construct.
However, there are several nice haircuts, so you usually can't say 'the right haircut', hence there's no 'the wrong haircut'.

As for the workbook, 'the right workbook' is ok, so again 'the wrong workbook' works.

Does it make sense?

FRC
 

Francois

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Here's my go.

In the case of the phone number, there is only one right phone number, so it's fine to say 'the right number'. IMO, 'the wrong number' is just a parallel construct.
However, there are several nice haircuts, so you usually can't say 'the right haircut', hence there's no 'the wrong haircut'.

As for the workbook, 'the right workbook' is ok, so again 'the wrong workbook' works.

Does it make sense?

FRC
 
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oichi

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Hi Francois. Thanks very much for your comment.

Francois said:
In the case of the phone number, there is only one right phone number, so it's fine to say 'the right number'. IMO, 'the wrong number' is just a parallel construct.
However, there are several nice haircuts, so you usually can't say 'the right haircut', hence there's no 'the wrong haircut'.

As for the workbook, 'the right workbook' is ok, so again 'the wrong workbook' works.

I write this reply to Francois first because what he is saying here is exactly what I was trying to state in my "hypothesis" on Jul 02, while Francois put it in a clearer way than I did.
I quote my hypothesis again:

oichi said:
My hypothesis is that it has to do with the word "wrong."
That is, "the wrong book" is more specifically limited than "a nice haircut."
Unlike nice or not nice haircuts, there is only one correct book.
This fact makes any books other than one correct book the wrong books.
So while there are many possible wrong books you can bring to the class, any one of them is specifically the wrong book.
On the other hand, neither nice nor not nice haircuts are specifically limited.

In other words, in my hypothesis, you say "the wrong number" NOT because you are talking about a specific number, but because there is a specific criterion according to which whether a number is right or wrong is decided.
That specific criterion is pregiven by the specific right number.
That is, "the" of "the wrong number" means not "the specific number," but "a number that belongs to the specific category of wrong numbers, i.e. the category made specific by the specific right number."

It sounds so confusing... :shock:

While tdol agreed with my hypothesis, I was not sure if my hypothesis is really right, because what he was saying was actually different than what I was trying to say.

tdol said:
In the example of 'the wrong book', we use the definite article because we are only interested in the one book you brought in contrast to the one you didn't; we aren't interested in the thousands of other wrong books you could have brought. So, yes, Oichi, I do agree with your analysis.;-)

So I would also like to ask tdol, Casiopea and other English experts again whether my hypothesis (and Francois') is right, whether it feels right to the native English speaker.
 
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oichi

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Hi Francois. Thanks very much for your comment.

Francois said:
In the case of the phone number, there is only one right phone number, so it's fine to say 'the right number'. IMO, 'the wrong number' is just a parallel construct.
However, there are several nice haircuts, so you usually can't say 'the right haircut', hence there's no 'the wrong haircut'.

As for the workbook, 'the right workbook' is ok, so again 'the wrong workbook' works.

I write this reply to Francois first because what he is saying here is exactly what I was trying to state in my "hypothesis" on Jul 02, while Francois put it in a clearer way than I did.
I quote my hypothesis again:

oichi said:
My hypothesis is that it has to do with the word "wrong."
That is, "the wrong book" is more specifically limited than "a nice haircut."
Unlike nice or not nice haircuts, there is only one correct book.
This fact makes any books other than one correct book the wrong books.
So while there are many possible wrong books you can bring to the class, any one of them is specifically the wrong book.
On the other hand, neither nice nor not nice haircuts are specifically limited.

In other words, in my hypothesis, you say "the wrong number" NOT because you are talking about a specific number, but because there is a specific criterion according to which whether a number is right or wrong is decided.
That specific criterion is pregiven by the specific right number.
That is, "the" of "the wrong number" means not "the specific number," but "a number that belongs to the specific category of wrong numbers, i.e. the category made specific by the specific right number."

It sounds so confusing... :shock:

While tdol agreed with my hypothesis, I was not sure if my hypothesis is really right, because what he was saying was actually different than what I was trying to say.

tdol said:
In the example of 'the wrong book', we use the definite article because we are only interested in the one book you brought in contrast to the one you didn't; we aren't interested in the thousands of other wrong books you could have brought. So, yes, Oichi, I do agree with your analysis.;-)

So I would also like to ask tdol, Casiopea and other English experts again whether my hypothesis (and Francois') is right, whether it feels right to the native English speaker.
 
O

oichi

Guest
Hi tdol.

Thanks very much for helping me understand this.
I would like to ask some more additional questions but, thanks to you and other people who kindly responded to me, I feel I'm getting very close to the "right feeling" which the native English speaker has when he says "the wrong..."
This web site is the best place I have ever found where I can ask questions about English (for free!) :D

First please read my response to Francois above, in which I explained my "hypothesis" again.

tdol said:
1- Generally, I'd say 'the wrong person' because there's a specific reason why they are wrong.

This comment stuck out for me because here you are saying you'd say "the wrong person" not because it is a specific person but because "there's a specific reason why they are wong."
If I understood what you are saying here correctly, are you saying it is because there is a specific criterion according to which whether the person in question is right or wrong (i.e. whether it is her or not) is decided?

tdol said:
2- He took a wrong turning and got lost on the way to my house. (Many wrong turnings)

If I try to explain by my hypothesis why the indefinite article is used in this example, it is used not (just) because there are many wrong turnings -- there are many wrong numbers too -- but it is because the criterion for a right or a wrong turning was not pregiven.
Or, to put it in another way, it is not just because there are many wrong turnings but also because there are many right turnings (like there are many nice haircuts and many not-nice haircuts).
Maybe I'm putting it in a confusing way...
What I want to say is exactly what Francois said, i.e. when you would say "the right...," its counterpart is "the wrong..."; and when you would say "a right...," its counterpart is "a wrong..."
Is this off the mark?
What is the counterpart of the above example? -- "He took a right turning" or "He took the right turning"?

This way of thinking makes me construct another test case:
If you knew that there is only one right turning and you were watching him from behind, thinking whether he would take that specific right turning, can you say "He took the wrong turning"?

One more test case:
If there is a specific haircut which is "bad" for you (the bad haircut) and any other haircuts are nice for you, can you say "You have the nice haircut"?
 
O

oichi

Guest
Hi tdol.

Thanks very much for helping me understand this.
I would like to ask some more additional questions but, thanks to you and other people who kindly responded to me, I feel I'm getting very close to the "right feeling" which the native English speaker has when he says "the wrong..."
This web site is the best place I have ever found where I can ask questions about English (for free!) :D

First please read my response to Francois above, in which I explained my "hypothesis" again.

tdol said:
1- Generally, I'd say 'the wrong person' because there's a specific reason why they are wrong.

This comment stuck out for me because here you are saying you'd say "the wrong person" not because it is a specific person but because "there's a specific reason why they are wong."
If I understood what you are saying here correctly, are you saying it is because there is a specific criterion according to which whether the person in question is right or wrong (i.e. whether it is her or not) is decided?

tdol said:
2- He took a wrong turning and got lost on the way to my house. (Many wrong turnings)

If I try to explain by my hypothesis why the indefinite article is used in this example, it is used not (just) because there are many wrong turnings -- there are many wrong numbers too -- but it is because the criterion for a right or a wrong turning was not pregiven.
Or, to put it in another way, it is not just because there are many wrong turnings but also because there are many right turnings (like there are many nice haircuts and many not-nice haircuts).
Maybe I'm putting it in a confusing way...
What I want to say is exactly what Francois said, i.e. when you would say "the right...," its counterpart is "the wrong..."; and when you would say "a right...," its counterpart is "a wrong..."
Is this off the mark?
What is the counterpart of the above example? -- "He took a right turning" or "He took the right turning"?

This way of thinking makes me construct another test case:
If you knew that there is only one right turning and you were watching him from behind, thinking whether he would take that specific right turning, can you say "He took the wrong turning"?

One more test case:
If there is a specific haircut which is "bad" for you (the bad haircut) and any other haircuts are nice for you, can you say "You have the nice haircut"?
 
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