"Wow, what a car!" - Is it okay if I say 'Wow, what the car!"

63

22

I have been struggling with articles for quite a long time. Most of the times, I understand but then the more I understand them, the more it's getting perplexed!

For this particular question, I'm keeping in mind that the definite article 'the' is used for the one and only, a unique thing. Known to both - the listener and the speaker. If I say there was a table, it means there was some table but then if you and me are standing in a hall and we see a table, I won't use an indefinite article. There, it's Do you see the table? Quite clear.

Let's extend this further...

You and me are standing on a footpath. And we see a sexy Bentley...

"Wow, what a car!" is generally what we hear. But...

why not the? I'm talking about that Bentley only --that particular car, in front of us (like the table).

And to argue, I'm not talking about the same model by German Volkswagen AG (or else 'a car' is justified!) because it has a beautiful sticker of Spiderman on it. Volkswagen does not make it that way!

Same case with...

"What the beautiful pair of legs!" - She's right in front of me!
"What the movie it is! Awesome!" - Telling someone in the interval.

Though I'm asking this question, What a beautiful... and What a movie... seems correct.

Ah, I am trying to come up with What the [countable noun]... examples but finding it difficult. Is it that weird?

Maulik V

Posted 2014-07-07T09:05:02.867

Reputation: 66 188

Re your "one and only", don't forget "the" is also used with definite plural nouns. But the idea that it means this is something both speaker and hearer already know about: the idea of a unique referent (even if plural) is correct. In this case, you are not talking about "the car" but an ideal car, one of the great cars... you would also say "what a great car", or when you see a child after a year "what a big boy you are" or "you're a big boy now aren't you" (to avoid the "what"). You are implicitly comparing "an instance" to the typical car or boy (and level of goodness or bigness). – David M W Powers – 2016-07-04T15:52:18.050

2

Have a look at some answers to a similar question, I hope they help: http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/143555/what-a-beautiful-day-or-what-the-beautiful-day-and-exactly-why

– fluffy – 2014-07-07T09:35:56.460

7The rule you learned for the is incorrect, I'm afraid. – snailplane – 2014-07-07T10:10:06.580

7@snailplane The comment could have been more useful if it had some more information. :) – Maulik V – 2014-07-07T10:24:21.857

3Okay, then, the short version: the definite article is a pragmatic marker indicating that the speaker expects the listener to be able to identify what the noun phrase it marks refers to. – snailplane – 2014-07-07T10:38:49.767

@snailplane aha... don't you think that this little cute rule what you said is exactly about the example (table!) I gave after that very sentence of mine that made you think I'm incorrect? :) – Maulik V – 2014-07-07T10:48:18.587

32There's the added risk that any phrase beginning with "What the [noun]" will be misinterpreted as a "polite" version of WTF . – Carl Witthoft – 2014-07-07T13:11:18.053

5I like complicating things: it is common to hear both "That's quite a car" and "That's quite the car." – Kyle Hale – 2014-07-07T17:37:28.953

5The sentence should be expanded out to "Wow, what [a fine example of] a car!" The sentence as a whole is indicating that the car is exceptional among cars. While it may be a singularly exceptional car, you are not comparing it to itself, you are still calling it a car, included in the class of other items we call cars. – Adam Davis – 2014-07-07T19:57:52.713

@AdamDavis A 'sticker* part in my question clarifies it! – Maulik V – 2014-07-08T04:48:59.480

1@MaulikV: wrt to the table example, the usage of the is correct, but not because of your rule - or at least, not only because of your rule. If you use the, essentially you signal that the listener/reader knows what you're talking about. That's why I can walk up to anyone and say "the weather's nice, isn't it?" but if I were telling someone from another country something that happened locally, I'd say "there was a stabbing here". It's not about uniqueness, it's a deictic marker. – jimsug – 2014-07-08T04:49:13.153

@jimsug When I refer to do you see the table it's unique and one and only in the room. Take it one way or the other, if we both know the difference between a table and the table, why discuss it further? I called it unique and one and only on the basis of the example I provided later. It's the only table in front of you and me. – Maulik V – 2014-07-08T04:52:02.553

1As children we were not aloud to curse so we'd use phrases like this as a way to get around it. A sentence like, 'Wow, what the car!' has enough in common with a certain vulgar expression that, to our minds, it sounded nearly identical. Because our parents couldn't punish us for saying it we'd repeat it over and over. We'd prefer words which start with an 'f' over the word 'car' but this is close enough to work. Of course, if said with an accent that meaning would surely be lost. This works because the word 'the' is unexpected and forces us to look for other meanings for the sentence. – krowe – 2014-07-08T05:52:08.707

2@krowe - Ah, I see. What the firetruck? – J.R. – 2014-07-08T09:01:20.300

@J.R. I would maybe prefer "What the frack?", since fracking is arguably, quite obscene. :) – Tim Seguine – 2014-07-08T11:35:44.237

3As an aside, in the case of "WTF", changing "the" to "a" would result in a significantly different meaning. – R.. GitHub STOP HELPING ICE – 2014-07-08T17:57:34.710

Answers

64

The definite article is not used in this expression.

When we assign an entity membership in a class we use the indefinite article, regardless of how ‘determinate’ the entity is, because it is not the only member of the class.

For instance, we ordinarily say “I own a ’57 Chevy”—that is, “The car I own belongs to the class ’57 Chevy”. You own only one car, it is entirely determinate, you introduce it into the conversation with the definite article; but it is just one of many ’57 Chevys. You would only say “I own the ’57 Chevy” if you and your hearers were looking at a group of cars and you were identifying your car as the only ’57 Chevy in the group.

Likewise, when you speak of a particular individual known to your hearer, you use a definite determiner in identifying or naming her—my wife—but the indefinite article in assigning her to a class: “My wife is a graduate student in mediaeval English lit.”

In the same way, when you say “What a car!”, you are not identifying the car but asserting its membership in the class of “cars to which attention should be drawn”.

We never say "What the X," because that utterance is not intended to identify which X you are talking about. It does not enjoin the hearer to "Look at that X", it observes that that X is an X of a certain class: it is an X which excites your admiration and deserves your hearer's attention.

StoneyB on hiatus

Posted 2014-07-07T09:05:02.867

Reputation: 176 469

Would you mind addressing my question specifically after the line that reads And to argue... Also, put some light on those two examples. I am quite aware of what all you said in this answer. My question actually starts from that line. – Maulik V – 2014-07-07T12:56:44.130

2@MaulikV “I own a ’57 Chevy” ~ “The car I own belongs to the class ’57 Chevy” (and particularly the case of "What the X" is an assertion of asserting its membership in the class of “cars to which attention should be drawn”) is actually the key. I hope you will read this answer carefully and see its true value along with the hidden gems inside. – Damkerng T. – 2014-07-07T13:38:17.220

16We never say "What the X", but I do hear "What the F" quite a lot.... :-) – Hellion – 2014-07-07T14:30:29.777

15@Hellion (Not because you don't know, but to avoid confusing learners) Collocations like What the hell or the milder or stronger oaths are a different idiom entirely. The What is an interrogative, and the the [oath] which follows is an intensifier; the whole is an abbreviated What [the oath] is that? or What [the oath] is that supposed to mean? or something of the sort. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-07-07T14:37:37.273

@Hellion (and also MaulikV) I think I misquoted it in my comment. (My apologies to everyone, especially to StoneyB.) "What the X" shouldn't be there. It should be: (and particularly the case of "What a car!" is an assertion of asserting its membership in the class of “cars to which attention should be drawn”). -- This is the key to MaulikV's question, in my opinion. – Damkerng T. – 2014-07-07T16:54:16.283

3To make it more clear: "what the hell" and its more profane phrase siblings are abbreviations of "what in the hell", where hell was most definitely a determinate singular entity. See also: "What in the wide world of sports", "What in blazes", "What in tarnation", etc. – Kyle Hale – 2014-07-07T17:34:17.447

Even better, "what" is often dropped as well, leading to the otherwise completely ungrammatical, "the hell?" (Double-short for "what the hell was that?" or similar.) – neminem – 2014-07-07T20:41:59.367

4Definitely agree with the simiarities here between WTF. When I read "What the car" I thought "sounds like something I say when my kids to something stupid "What the fff... hhh... car!! are you doing to the cat? Put her down, NOW!" – corsiKa – 2014-07-07T21:46:32.820

29

What the hell? What a headache!

No, you can't use the definite article in this context. What a great example of why that oft-quoted rule – the definite article 'the' is used for the one and only – trips people up from time to time. In reality, when to use "a" vs. when to use "the" runs much deeper than that.

The key here is the way what is used in exclamations – as a predeterminer. As for why we use "a", I believe the word "a" in this context narrows the quantity down to one. For example, I could omit the "a", and reference the plural:

What good books you can find at the library!

but when you want to reference a particular book, you use "a" in that context:

What a good book I finished reading yesterday!

What a great question, by the way.

J.R.

Posted 2014-07-07T09:05:02.867

Reputation: 108 123

Or I learnt to play the violin vs I learnt to play a violin - the latter makes one much less useful in an orchestra :) – user8543 – 2014-07-07T09:30:24.640

@user8543 I think musical instruments and scientific inventions take the definite article in most of the cases. – Maulik V – 2014-07-07T09:35:03.460

1

@Maulik - Yes - that's why we don't generally say, "Thomas Edison invented a light bulb." I wrote a little more about this here.

– J.R. – 2014-07-07T09:36:56.157

@user8543 But we learn how to make a compass, not the compass, don't we? ;-) – Damkerng T. – 2014-07-07T09:53:27.163

4@DamkerngT. because in that case one new compass materializes every time we make/build one, that doesn't alter the case that the compass was invented in China. Or to say it differently the compass is a concept, a compass is an object. – None – 2014-07-07T10:03:43.860

3@Laure Thanks, though my point was things weren't as clear-cut as we wish it would. Here is a case I still couldn't figure out its pattern: They made the wrong choice, she asked the wrong question, but he could take a wrong turn (the wrong turn is possible but less likely), and while people usually say hit/pressed the wrong button, it's still possible to say hit/pressed a wrong button. I tried to apply my intuition which I believe is closer to the sense of definite than specific and/or generic reference and failed to explain these cases. – Damkerng T. – 2014-07-07T10:16:30.207

Each of your example is actually a question! – Maulik V – 2014-07-07T10:27:04.400

1@DamkerngT.: All of these are quite logical, always compare to the (probable) total number of alternatives: the wrong choice implies that there were only few options (possibly only two), only one of which was wrong. Or it implies there was only one decision point. Likewise, the wrong question implies that of all the questions that could be or were asked, only one was wrong and that's the one she asked. Compare that to a wrong turn, where it is extremely unlikely that in the course of a journey, there was only a single turn. There were many turns, one of which led to the wrong way. – O. R. Mapper – 2014-07-07T10:31:57.063

2@O.R.Mapper I'm afraid not. The wrong question certainly does not imply that all other questions are the right question. – snailplane – 2014-07-07T11:36:44.813

1

@snailplane: Really? Three more or less random uses of the phrase (the top 3 Google results), namely this, this and this, seem to comply with that interpretation, in that only one question was asked in total - only a single decision point.

– O. R. Mapper – 2014-07-07T11:50:12.027

3Yes, really. If someone tells me I'm asking the wrong question, it doesn't automatically make "What color is a banana?" the right question. If I'm supposed to hit the 'X' key, but I hit the wrong key, it doesn't make every other key the right key. – snailplane – 2014-07-07T13:23:11.590

@snailplane I think you missed a detail in O.R.Mapper's comment: "single decision point", or what I call a "junction". Suppose a teacher prepared a series of questions to ask his class. He is said to ask the wrong one when considering a single question he prepared (e.g. he realizes right after he asked it, or when referring to Q #4). But he is said to ask a wrong one when considering the series (e.g. he realizes it after he's finished all the questions). Similarly you use the wrong turn when considering a specific step, but a when considering the entire journey. – Kelvin – 2014-07-07T20:51:23.220

1@O.R.Mapper I think you're correct about "a" vs "the" regarding single vs multiple decision points (junctions), but incorrect about few or many options at a given junction. – Kelvin – 2014-07-07T20:55:34.110

@O.R.Mapper - She married the wrong man doesn't imply there were only two or three eligible bachelors, I don't think. It can mean (in the marriage department), She made a bad choice. I do think this can get somewhat idiomatic at times. – J.R. – 2014-07-07T22:50:27.560

@Kelvin: What about a hypothetical scenario such as a "not quite neutral" interview with some politician - couldn't you say "The news anchor asked the wrong question and got into serious trouble afterwards." in that situation? – O. R. Mapper – 2014-07-08T05:51:22.550

@J.R.: I can indeed see how She married the wrong man could be interpreted as "Of the handful of boyfriends she had, she picked the one with whom things ended badly (while she'd probably have been happy with (all or almost all of) the others." It is not unlikely to assume that during "her life", there has been only a rather small number of people she has ever grown close enough to consider marrying. – O. R. Mapper – 2014-07-08T05:53:38.827

@snailplane: Not all other questions are the right question, but many other questions are. It gets even clearer with the keys - If I'm supposed to hit the 'X' key => yes, single decision point scenario. However, imagine accidentally hitting some keys during video playback and it happens to be the one for the close video and delete file feature. That's the wrong key, as well. Not the wrong key at a single decision point, because you may have accidentally pressed a number of keys over time, but of all the keys you could have pressed the wrong key, the one with a fatal effect. – O. R. Mapper – 2014-07-08T06:03:43.013

1@O.R.Mapper - Or She married the wrong man could also be interpreted as, "She married a scoundrel and a bum." It could be used to mean, "She never should have married him." Or even, "Of the two billion single men on the planet, why did she have to marry him?" – J.R. – 2014-07-08T08:37:04.053

@J.R.: Exactly. All of these are roughly equivalent, and especially the paraphrase "Of the two billion single men on the planet, why did she have to marry him?" expresses quite explicitly that out of two billion single men, she should have picked anyone else, just not him, thus supporting my definition from above, that the wrong man refers to either a single decision point, or a single bad choice out of many good alternatives. – O. R. Mapper – 2014-07-08T08:44:47.280

@O.R.Mapper - But I think the part of your original remark that people are taking exception to is this: ‘the wrong choice’ implies that there were only few options (possibly only two). Actually, there could be more than a "few" options. – J.R. – 2014-07-08T08:51:33.877

@J.R.: True, in that case, it doesn't seem to be limited to only a few alternative options, but there can be any number of alternative options that are (at least almost exclusively) better. – O. R. Mapper – 2014-07-08T09:33:37.423

@O.R.Mapper re: "not quite neutral". I think this is an idiomatic usage. The emphasis then is on the extreme "wrongness" of the choice and not necessarily on the number of options. When speaking, the stress is put on the "wrong" - which is drawn out, as in "The reporter asked the wroooong question that time!" In this case, using "the" vs "a" doesn't seem to convey any meaning, but is part of the idiom. – Kelvin – 2014-07-08T17:02:30.780

@Kelvin: But it totally does convey some meaning - the reporter could have asked many things, but of all the possible questions, he picked the one that meant trouble. In other words, it nicely goes along with the general rule, so I see no reason to ignore that and insist it is only idiomatic without any meaning. – O. R. Mapper – 2014-07-08T17:28:02.890

@O.R.Mapper It seems odd to me that a narrator of the events would know the reporter only had one troublesome question in mind (rather than multiple). This level of "omniscience" would only be present in something like fiction. We might just have to agree to disagree here. – Kelvin – 2014-07-08T17:34:02.847

@Kelvin: Who says anything about how many questions the reporter had in mind? I think it is not far-fetched to imagine a situation where lots of unproblematic topics can be talked about, while very few delicate topics shouldn't. Unfortunately, I fear, such situations are far less fictitious than we may wish for. – O. R. Mapper – 2014-07-08T17:52:53.843

I think in cases like "She married the wrong man" or "He asked the wrong question" the definitive is being used as form of exaggeration. It implies there were no other wrong questions. Even if some of the other questions could be considered wrong, the question he chose is so wrong that those questions look right by comparison. – Mike Gossmann – 2014-07-08T20:07:39.263

1There are too many comments for me to go through each one, so apologies if someone else has pointed this out. But if I read the sentence "What good books you can find at a library" I almost expect to see a question mark at the end until I see the can follows the subject you, so I understand why @MaulikV may think that sentence is a question. – Mari-Lou A – 2014-09-12T03:07:44.027

Cont'd. "What delightful flowers!" is clearly an exclamation, as is "What a beautiful baby!" but "What beautiful babies" is possibly ambiguous, without any punctuation mark are we admiring two or more babies (What beautiful babies!) or are we asking about the babies? "What beautiful babies?" I don't see any. I only hear 'noisy crying ones'!" :) – Mari-Lou A – 2014-09-12T03:08:11.303

18

The most straightforward way to make the distinction here is that the is used when the object is being referred to directly as a specific object and a is used when the object is being referred to as part of a type or class of object.

The car parked at Steve's house is a nice car.

Here the first part of the sentence is being specific about the car we are talking about - the one at Steve's house. The second part of the sentence is placing that specific car into the group of cars we would call nice cars.

Just the same, the sentence:

I would like to buy a nice car.

is not so specific about which car we want to buy - it is only saying that we want to buy a nice one. Supposing we saw a nice one earlier, you might say

I would like to buy the nice car we saw at the showroom today.

Now we are referring to a specific car; the one we saw today - not just any nice one we might find.

As for the construct:

What a(n) [adjective] [noun]

It is worth noting that it is not a complete sentence on its own. To say:

What a beautiful pair of legs.

Is not technically a complete sentence. It is a colloquial construction that implies a complete sentence like :

What a beautiful pair of legs she has!

The verb is missing from the fragment in the first example. The verb is always referring to the specific object - those legs (are) or the pair of legs (she has). The use of what in this case is inverting the structure of the sentence. It is the same as saying:

The pair of legs she has is a beautiful pair of legs.

or

She has a beautiful pair of legs

or

That is a beautiful pair of legs.

The meaning is the same as the case of the car above - a specific object is being referred to as a more general type of object. If the sentence were altered so that the verb acted on another object then you could use the in the same situtation - consider:

I see the beautiful legs she has.

or

The beautiful legs she has are distracting the English language learners.

Now there is a verb that points directly to the beautiful legs - I see and are distracting.

J...

Posted 2014-07-07T09:05:02.867

Reputation: 373

What's your take on *a pair of sexy legs or the pair of sexy legs. The girl is right there in front of us. The rule that you said here is common and I know that! Check my examples and it'll be clear what I am confused with. – Maulik V – 2014-07-07T11:34:16.570

@MaulikV I've added a bit more description. – J... – 2014-07-07T11:44:40.410

Yes, this is better now. +1 – Maulik V – 2014-07-07T12:58:36.733

In US grammar, "pair" is singular, hence "the pair of legs she has is a beautiful pair of legs. – Carl Witthoft – 2014-07-07T13:12:30.393

1@CarlWitthoft I'm pretty sure that's grammar in general. Corrected - thanks. – J... – 2014-07-07T16:49:21.947

@J... Not in general. In British English, collective nouns are often (but not always) treated as plural, even if the noun is singular, and if taken as plural, they take plural verb forms as well. That said, treating "pair" as singular is perfectly valid too. – hvd – 2014-07-08T12:17:54.360

@hvd I suppose that makes sense... I'm Canadian but worked in Britain for almost five years. Must have rubbed off! – J... – 2014-07-08T13:57:50.050

5

If we say, What a great car! then we are saying that the car is one of great cars that are in the world. There are many great cars in the world; this is just one of them. It is one of many. It is not the only one. Since it is only one of them, it is "a great car", not "the great car".

You could think of it like this:

What [an example of] a great car!

Dangph

Posted 2014-07-07T09:05:02.867

Reputation: 2 158

6Now really confuse him and explain how we can say both "That's quite a car" and "That's quite the car." – Kyle Hale – 2014-07-07T17:35:28.833

3

'a' is correct in the example and 'the' is wrong.

This is because the article is not refering to the Bentley in front of you. It is refering to a property of the Bently. - You are stating; "Consider the Bentley, that is definitly a car."

Taemyr

Posted 2014-07-07T09:05:02.867

Reputation: 194

-1

When you express admiration you use idiomatic formulas of the type

  • What a wonderful picture!

  • That's a fine horse!

Here the rules about the use of articles you may have learnt don't fit. These formulas of admiration are fixed and you can't use "the" here.

rogermue

Posted 2014-07-07T09:05:02.867

Reputation: 8 304

-4

It is likely that "What the XXX" would be used in casual (informal) speech, if the phrase didn't mislead the listener into expecting:

"What the f***!"

An extremely common swear.

If "What the XXX" were used, it would most likely be used in the same sense as "Quite the XXX".

It's a case where the exact rules of the language were bent in order to avoid offending people.

Kent

Posted 2014-07-07T09:05:02.867

Reputation: 101