Using "the" instead of "a" for something that isn't a specific object

9

I've been curious about this for a while.

Generally, one uses "the" if they mean a specific object ("The copy of Lord of the Rings I bought yesterday") instead of any object that fits a description ("I have a copy of Lord of the Rings").

However I've seen "the" used in some cases where the phrase doesn't refer to a specific object. I've noticed it mostly being about technology, such as "This game requires the Classic Controller" (seen on some Wii Virtual Console games). While saying "This game requires a Classic Controller" seems to be correct as well, using "the" doesn't feel wrong either.

The controller's page on Wikipedia also uses "the": Classic Controller

What is the rule that allows the use of "the" in this context?

I presume it has something to do with "Classic Controller" being a proper noun.

George T

Posted 2015-04-09T13:56:00.320

Reputation: 225

1

Related: http://ell.stackexchange.com/a/17433/3281. (In this case, the reader knows "which kind" of controller the game requires--it's the Classic Controller.)

– Damkerng T. – 2015-04-09T14:03:18.753

That's a good point. It seems that a very specific "kind" required though, as we don't say "this pump is for the diesel car". Presumably because there's still many kinds of diesel cars? – George T – 2015-04-09T14:15:38.817

I'd say it's more like it's because there are many kinds of cars. – Damkerng T. – 2015-04-09T14:17:07.603

Can you provide a link to an actual case you are talking about with regard to the? – None – 2015-04-09T14:53:43.077

1Also, it's interesting to note that the title to the JRR Tolkien series is The Lord of the Rings. Lotta song and book titles dispense with articles, though. Just like a lotta people dispense with the the in The Lord of the Rings. – None – 2015-04-09T14:55:07.717

@δοῦλος: I added a link. Regarding LotR, in that case "the" doesn't need a special rule as far as I can see. As Gandalf said, there is only one Lord of the Ring! – George T – 2015-04-09T15:02:58.253

1

Your "generally" rule is just that – a general rule. In other contexts, other rules may apply.

– J.R. – 2015-04-09T15:34:16.887

Answers

2

First, consider the following

I have a copy of Lord of the Rings (at home)

And:

There's a Wii Classic Contoller on the table.

These sentences show that we can use the indefinite article to refer to specific objects.

Now:

The Classic Controller (クラシックコントローラ Kurashikku Kontorōra?) is a video game controller produced by Nintendo for the Wii video game console.

(Source: wikipedia).

This is a generic reference, similar to:

The most secretive and elusive of the large carnivores, the leopard is also the shrewdest. Pound for pound, it is the strongest climber of the large cats and capable of killing prey larger than itself.

(Source: Out to Africa)

All the the's in the sentence above are generic references. They refer to a prototypical leopard. The reference is not to a specific controller or to a specific leopard, but to a generic controller and a generic leopard.

user6951

Posted 2015-04-09T13:56:00.320

Reputation:

I think the "prototypical" part is the important element here. – George T – 2015-04-10T07:39:05.020

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As indicated in the discussion in the comments, we ARE talking about a specific thing here: not just ANY controller, but THE CLASSIC controller. The "classic controller" is a specific thing, or at least, a very specific type of thing.

True, you wouldn't say, "This fuel pump is for the diesel car." But you very well might say, "This fuel pump is for the 2015 Chevy Cruze."

Of course you would NOT say, "Mr Dealer, I'd like to buy the 2015 Chevy Cruze." You'd say "... a Chevy Cruze."

I think the difference is this: If we're talking about something as a specific type, we use "the", even if there are many of them in the world. If we're talking about one (non-specific) instance of the type, we use "a". (If we're talking about a specific instance of the type, we use "the" per the normal rules.)

(So actually in my car dealer example, if you just walked into a dealership looking for a car of this model, you'd say "a Chevy Cruze". You're talking about any car of that make and model. But if the dealer had shown you several different cars, and you have now made a choice, you might say, "I think I'll take THE Chevy Cruze." Meaning, the specific one that you showed me a little while ago, so now we're talking about one.)

So why not "the diesel car"? It's a type, isn't it? I can't say for sure, partly I'd just say it's the convention. But maybe it's too broad a type to "quality" for use of "the". In some contexts we might say "the diesel car". Namely, if we're explicitly contrasting it from other types of car. Like, "Things to consider when buying a car: The electric car is a relatively recent invention ... The diesel car is considered to be highly reliable", etc.

Jay

Posted 2015-04-09T13:56:00.320

Reputation: 51 729

It seems to make sense. I'm not sure what the downvote was about. – George T – 2015-04-10T07:37:28.230