The power of an article (“a” vs “the”)

20 07 2011

Every word in an essay question matters. Even a seemingly innocent article, such as “a” and “the”, can make a difference to the requirements of a question.

Consider the difference between these two questions:

  1. Should clean energy be a priority for all countries?
  2. Should clean energy be the priority for all countries?

The requirement for arguing “a priority” is less demanding than that of “the priority” – if I were to convincingly argue that something should be the priority, I would also be meeting the requirements for arguing “a priority”. In other words, something that is “the priority” is necessarily “a priority”. However, something that is “a priority” isn’t necessarily the priority.

Why?

a priority: Admittedly, “priority” suggests that it must come before everything else; however, the article “a” is an indefinite article, and thus suggests the possibility of multiple priorities existing, and clean energy simply being one of them. Here, one would simply need to prove that clean energy is important and should be pursued.

 the priority: The article “the”, on the other hand, is a definite article. Here, one needs to take on a heavier burden of proof, and show that clean energy should be the most important pursuit – the priority that must come before any other important pursuit.


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