‘The’ as identifier

Which sentence sounds more natural to you?

  1. Please open a door.
  2. Please open the door.

You probably chose (b) and that is correct. But why? It’s because (a) means ‘open any door you like’ whereas (b) means ‘open a particular door – you know which door I mean’.


Many rooms only have one door, so (b) would be the only possible sentence. It doesn’t mean that (a) is wrong or impossible. We could perhaps think of a context in which (a) would be appropriate: like a game show in which the contestant needs to guess where a prize is hidden. The difference is that in (a), the noun ‘door’ is not identified but in (b) it is. This identifying function is performed by ‘the’.

Let’s look at some more examples.

To which guitar am I referring?

  • The black one
  • The one that looks like a ‘V’
  • The one on in the middle

It is assumed that you are able to identify each guitar. This is because each example has the article ‘the’. ‘The’ has an identifying function. It means ‘I think you know which one I’m referring to’. The context (pictures) make it clear that:

  • The black one is C
  • The one that looks like a ‘V’ is A
  • The one in the middle is B

You can identify all three guitars because the grammar and the context (pictures) work together.

But can you identify the following?

  • The electric guitar
  • The black guitar
  • The one that looks like a ‘V’

The only guitar you can identify is the one that looks like a ‘V’, because all the guitars are electric and black. So the identifying function of ‘the’ depends on the context.

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