Article Confusion Again! Why is there an 'a' instead of a 'the'?



Articles give me a lot of pain! Here is the latest one.

From the Yahoo! News page -

Have you seen Facebook posts claiming to link to a video message that actor Robin Williams made before his death earlier this week? Do not click on it — the video does not exist. The post was created by scammers looking to make a quick buck off the tragic death of a beloved entertainer.

...a beloved entertainer? Why not ...the beloved entertainer? Especially when we are talking about the tragic death which surely talks about RW and no one else?

I remember when MJ died, all news read the pop singer inside their bodies because we are certainly taking about MJ, the pop singer and not anyone else.

This said, when the news is about the defined person, why would we use a to describe him by his profession/quality?

These pieces of news looks okay to me.

Obama, on holiday in Martha's Vineyard, referenced Williams' array of beloved performances as he led the tributes to the entertainer - i24news

It’s all just… sad, and it feels like a terrible waste. I guess there is a wider conversation to be had about mental health, but I’m really not qualified to take part in such a discussion. All I can do is mourn the entertainer - The Moderate Voice

Maulik V

Posted 2014-08-19T06:49:10.423

Reputation: 66 188



It's a and not the because the phrase is part of an attributive clause describing scammers. Here, looking to make a quick buck off the tragic death of a beloved entertainer tells us what type of people the scammers are. It's very likely that, to them, the important bit is that this person is someone famous, not that it's Robin Williams specifically. They would be glad to use this ploy to make a quick buck off the tragic death of any celebrity who had died. Thus, the precise identity of the deceased (which is what using the would mean) is incidental; any beloved entertainer would do, hence a rather than the.

The case of MJ, the pop singer is different because the pop singer is an appositive clause serving to identify a particular, unique Michael Jackson among the various famous ones. If instead pop singer were being used to qualify rather than determine MJ (if he were much less famous and the reader needed some additional context to know who he was, say), then using a would be appropriate, and it would tell the reader a bit more about him. For example, consider this conversation:

Alice: I ran into Michael Jackson yesterday.
Bob: I have no idea who that is.
Alice: He's a pop singer.
Charlie: Who did Alice meet?
Bob: Michael Jackson, a pop singer.

Esoteric Screen Name

Posted 2014-08-19T06:49:10.423

Reputation: 7 480

It's a and not the because the phrase is part of an attributive clause describing scammers. In this case, it should not be *the tragic death* because then it becomes the special case of RW's and no one else's. – Maulik V – 2014-08-19T07:23:23.030

2On the contrary, that's exactly why it should be the tragic death. Within the scope of the article, there's only one possible death to consider; a would imply multiple choices. If the piece was about a history of such scams, then a tragic death would be appropriate. Here the different articles are used to give us more information and with greater precision: the death affirms that it's RW's death and an entertainer means that had it been another celebrity, the scammers would still use this technique. You could also view an entertainer as functioning the same as a pop singer. – Esoteric Screen Name – 2014-08-19T07:32:51.430

is this sentence correct? The hat of the entertainer was made of gold. Mind it that this sentence is from a biography of some entertainer. Here, the tragic death has happened, whose? – Maulik V – 2014-08-19T09:08:53.187

2If the context references one specific hat and only one entertainer (e.g. no colleagues are mentioned), then yes, it's correct. Here, the tragic death is scoped to a beloved entertainer, so there's only one possible death to talk about, even though a beloved entertainer doesn't say who specifically died. – Esoteric Screen Name – 2014-08-19T09:13:02.403

Considering that there was, in fact, another beloved entertainer that has died other than Robin Williams, I would dispute all of the assertions above about "the tragic death" specifying his (that is Robin's) particularly. Again, the phrase "the tragic death" is part of the attributive clause describing the scammers. While Lauren Bacall's death was more natural in cause and predictable by time scale, her iconic status as an entertainer also affords her death as tragic - not so much for the circumstances of her loved ones, as for the country, which is now poorer for the loss of her insight. – BMeph – 2014-08-19T16:25:12.850

1@BMeph Lauren Bacall's death has nothing to do with the question or answer and is not mentioned in any of the linked news articles. Language is context dependent; we aren't talking about everything at once. – Esoteric Screen Name – 2014-08-19T23:52:32.233



(a) The post was created by scammers looking to make a quick buck off the tragic death of a beloved entertainer.


(b) The post was created by scammers looking to make a quick buck off the tragic death of the beloved entertainer.

would be meaningful and grammatically correct sentences. However, they do have subtle differences in connotation and emphasis. Specifically:

  • In sentence (a), "the tragic death of a beloved entertainer" describes an instance of a general class of events that the scammers were exploiting. The knowledge that the specific entertainer in question was Robin Williams, although clearly evident from the preceding context, is not actually required to make sense of the sentence.

    In particular, the adjective "beloved" in this sentence serves only to restrict the class of possible referents — that is to say, its function is to note that the scammers could not have similarly exploited the death of a completely unknown or a generally detested entertainer, since most people would not have cared enough to watch the video. In carries no significant authorial opinion on Mr. Williams, beyond implying that he belongs to the class of well known and liked entertainers whose death many people care about.

  • In sentence (b), however, "the beloved entertainer" must refer back to some previously mentioned (or otherwise relevant) entertainer, of which, in the context you quote, there is only one.

    Specifically, the adjective "beloved" in this sentence is functionally redundant: simply writing "the death of the entertainer" (or even just "his death") would be sufficient to unambiguously identify him. Thus, the redundant inclusion of the adjective "beloved", together with the definite article "the", comes across as particularly emphatic — the writer could've omitted the adjective, but chose to include it anyway, as if to emphasize just how beloved they feel Mr. Williams really was.

As for your second question, why couldn't the sentence read:

(a*) The post was created by scammers looking to make a quick buck off a tragic death of a beloved entertainer.

instead? Well, the simple answer is that it's because people die only once, so each person only has a single, definite death, which therefore takes a definite article. Now, this is not a hard-and-fast rule, and one could regard sentence (a*) as valid, but at least to me, it just doesn't sound quite as natural and idiomatic as the alternative phrasing (a).

What might confuse your ear is that, even if you don't consider sentence (a*) idiomatic, the following sentence is still perfectly fine and natural:

(a**) The post was created by scammers looking to make a quick buck off a tragic death.

Here, using "death" with an indefinite article is fine, since the sentence is just referring to one, unspecified death among the many thousands happening every day. However, as soon as you start referring to the specific death of someone — even if the "someone" is just an unspecified "beloved entertainer" — using an indefinite article for "death" starts feeling awkward.

Ilmari Karonen

Posted 2014-08-19T06:49:10.423

Reputation: 1 235

1It may be helpful to suggest that "the X of a Y" is "a Y's X", while "an X of a Y" is "one of a Y's Xs". One could perhaps say "One of a beloved South Park character's deaths", and thus say "a death of a beloved South Park character", but for reasons you noted that construct wouldn't be applicable to beloved real people. – supercat – 2014-08-19T22:04:45.293

"Esoteric Screen Name"'s explanation is good, but yours makes even more sense to me. Well done =) – Andrew Savinykh – 2014-08-20T07:10:43.897


A matter of scope. Both variants are possible here.

"The beloved entertainer" refers to Williams directly, classifying him as a person.

"A beloved entertainer" refers to a group of people, i.e. "beloved entertainers" in this world, which there now is one less of. (Subjectively, this version adds a little more distance to the article.)

No. 7892142

Posted 2014-08-19T06:49:10.423

Reputation: 364