Grammatical Gut Feelings

On Sunday, I had a conversation with a Lithuanian friend (who speaks English fluently) about various difficulties for English-language learners and Lithuanian-language learners.  Definite (“the”) and indefinite (“a/an”) articles are an obvious difficulty for Lithuanians learning English because Lithuanian does not have articles.  I commented that I know the basic rules for definite and indefinite articles, but I really choose which to use by gut instinct.  I never actually think about the rules.  At the time, I was unable to come up with an example in which I knew the correct grammatical construction because it “felt right” not because I knew the rule.

On Monday afternoon, I used an ATM to get cash.  At the end of the transaction, the following appeared on the screen: “Would you like the receipt?”  I immediately knew that the ATM should be asking me “Would you like a receipt?”  I couldn’t identify the grammatical reason why it was incorrect, after all I would receive a definite, tangible receipt so it seemed that the could be correct.  But my gut cried out for a in that sentence.

I posted my dilemma on Facebook.  Everyone agreed that the ATM should have asked “Would you like a receipt?”  Fortunately, an English professor friend came to the rescue with an actual grammatical explanation:

It is a matter of grammar: definite article (the) vs. indefinite article (a/an). The ATM is offering to create a record of the transaction, but such a document does not yet exist, so the article must be indefinite: “I did not receive a receipt for this transaction.” Once the receipt is created, the holder may refer to it as “the receipt” as in, “According to the receipt, the funds were deposited on Friday.”

So there you have it!  My gut was correct and now I know why.

About amanda

Creating academic and public environments for the humanities to flourish Researching Soviet and Eastern European history Engaging people and ideas as a writer and interviewer Traveling as much as possible View all posts by amanda

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