Why the indefinite article in "Their campaign mounts in fury as a free Europe crumbles"


From The Imitation Game (2014), more spefically, from a WW2-era newsreel snippet inserted into the movie to keep the viewer up to date with the events:

"The German Army has fanned out across Europe, From Poland to Serbia, Lithuania to Denmark, Norway to France. The Nazi flag now flies from more than two dozen national capitals. Their campaign mounts in fury as a free Europe crumbles". (The newsreel is in an "old newscaster voice", clearly framed as contemporary with the events; there is some black-and-white historical footage being shown while this voice pronounces the words.)

Why a free Europe and not the free Europe? Everybody knew what the word Europe meant, and everybody knew what the free Europe was: it was the part of Europe not under the Nazi rule. Why introduce it all over again with the indefinite article?

I feel that the indefinite article might be okay here, but I would like to be able to explain this usage to someone else.

Maybe we could read the sentence as a shortening of

Their campaign mounts in fury as the part of Europe that is a free Europe crumbles. ("partitive use" of the indefinite article?)


Posted 2015-12-07T10:53:03.077

Reputation: 36 949

3This is a very good question. Can it imply that the state of Europe was subjective ? If we consider each possible state of Europe as a single entity, couldn't we have a list of Europes (Virtually)? Maybe that's why, conceptually an 'a' is used ? – Varun Nair – 2015-12-07T10:57:41.060

3Rhetorical scene-setting. Note also the historical present. I see what you mean by partitive. Imagine a set of possible Europes (or Europe in a set of possible political conditions) -- this would be the one that is "free". Consider: " A young Pele wakes up at the age of 9 and decides to become a saxophonist not a football player." – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2015-12-07T11:02:16.310

@TRomano - very interesting! I hope you'll post an answer! – CowperKettle – 2015-12-07T11:06:33.170

@TRomano - My explanation was probably unclear. The quoted narrative is cast in an "old newsreel voice"; it could be a snippet from a real newscast or a recording deliberately posing as such. It's not a narrative from today's standpoint. The video turns black-and-white while the voice speaks. I've added this to my question. – CowperKettle – 2015-12-07T11:28:26.370

It's a narrative then of a story unfolding. It doesn't have to be done in distant hindsight. There is a "past-that-impinges-on-the-present": ...has fanned... – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2015-12-07T11:29:58.393



This use of the indefinite article, especially in combination with the historical present (or reportage-present), often occurs in narratives as a scene-setting device. Consider:

A young Pele wakes up at the age of 9 and decides to become a saxophonist not a football player.

Grammatically, I think you're onto something when you suggest a partitive use but not as "that part of Europe which is free", rather on a more abstract level. If we imagine the noun as belonging to a set of versions of itself:

{young Pele, Pele in his prime, Pele in middle age, older Pele}
{free Europe, Europe under the looming threat of Nazi occupation, Europe of countries many of which are now Nazi-occupied}

then the indefinite article plays a selective function. From among these versions, that one. This function can also underlie the use in hypothetical contexts:

Imagine a world without hunger.

{world with hunger, world without hunger}


Posted 2015-12-07T10:53:03.077

Reputation: 116 610

1I don't think any normal native speaker would be thinking about the grammatical mechanics of the choice of indefinite article. Most would find it second-nature to use "a" in the "imagine a world without hunger" sort of context; and even with the narrative context ("A young Pele...") where it is a more self-conscious choice, the speaker is not thinking of the mechanics. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2015-12-07T18:46:19.573

But how to explain this to a learner logically? "A world without hunger" does not exist. There could be many variations of said world. Hence, a. "A young Pele" who decides to switch career paths does not exist. There could be numerous "young Peles" in imaginary past. Hence, a. In 1940, the free Europe does exist: it is the part of Europe not yet conquered by the Nazis. Hence, a learner will ask, "why a"? Replying that "any native speaker would find this a natural" won't help the learner. – CowperKettle – 2015-12-12T11:15:38.790

2@CopperKettle: Learners shouldn't learn and consciously apply a set of rules, IMO. Rather, they need to engage in conversation with native speakers immersively, so that it eventually becomes second-nature for the learner to make the right grammatical choices. We imbibe language. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2015-12-12T12:33:33.650

1We could equally well say "A young Pele wakes up at the age of ten and decides to kick a ball around." To say that this is an "imaginary" Pele isn't quite right, though there is certainly some truth in it. "A free Europe" could be paraphrased "Europe free at the time". So I think behind this use of "a" is the idea of the noun as it was at a particular time, in that sense a version of itself. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2015-12-12T12:35:17.137

I was failing to imbibe article usage until I started reading grammar books. I have a good Ukrainian friend who has been a teacher in the US for 10 years and there are article errors in nearly every sentence she writes. I believe a decade of teaching in a US college to be quite an immersive experience. (0: There are no articles in Russian and Ukrainian languages, and it's very hard to attune oneself to them. I've been attending translation courses, and the teachers there, being quite advanced linguists and having studied abroad, make article errors. – CowperKettle – 2015-12-12T12:40:49.733

1For me, immersion means living (cohabitating) with native speakers, ideally with some who are adults, some who are teenagers, and some who are children, and never speaking a word in one's own native language for months at a time. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2015-12-12T12:45:29.517

"A free Europe" could be paraphrased "Europe free at the time" -- but to the newscaster in the movie, it is the time. He is speaking about Europe that he is living in, in the year 1940. Sorry for cavilling. (0: – CowperKettle – 2015-12-12T12:48:06.563

1"the time" in "at the time" doesn't have to be a different time. The use of "a" in locutions of the "a free Europe" variety admits the idea that at another time the noun was or will be different with respect to the modifier involved. A deeply divided America is becoming even more polarized. A free Europe is succumbing to .... So, "the time" can be "now", with reference either to the future or to the past. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2015-12-12T12:52:05.133

1To put it abstractly, I think it's this sense of instances-of-a-thing (in-time) that underlies the rhetorical use of "a" in narrative contexts (A young Pele, a free Europe), and in quasi-hypothetical contexts which are closely related to narrative. Tell me, what would a single-payer health system look like? – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2015-12-12T13:03:56.893