Friday, March 07, 2008

Definite vs. indefinite article

Pass me the book.

Pass me a book.

There's a difference between these two statements, right?

If I say to you, "pass me the book", either I'm assuming you know which book I'm talking about, or I should expect you to ask, "which book?" because "the" is a definite article, which means it signals something specific about the noun it modifies.

If I say, "pass me a book", then I can expect you to pass me any book -- it doesn't matter which book because "a" is an indefinite article, which means it does not refer to something specific.

I'm always surprised when people misuse definite and indefinite articles because the rules are pretty simple. Sometimes I think people are just sloppy when it comes to using definite and indefinite articles correctly. And, in the scheme of things, I guess folks don't think such sloppiness is a big deal.

But misuse of definite and indefinite articles creates confusion -- confusion that's avoidable. Here's a real-life example of what I mean: awhile back I responded to a request for proposals (RFP) where the organization issuing the RFP invited individuals who are communications consultants (referred to in the RFP as "prospective Proponents") to respond. According to the RFP, the organization was seeking, "... to retain approximately five individuals to provide [Communications, Advisory, Writing and Project Support] services ..." to the organization.

I thought it was unusual to have an RFP where an organization is looking for more than one person or organization, but that appeared to be the case. As RFPs usually do, prospective Proponents were permitted to submit questions for clarification. The questions and responses were made public so that everyone had the same information. A couple of the questions submitted made it clear that other prospective Proponents also found it unusual that the organization would be looking for more than one service provider, but the organization's response made it clear that was the case.

So, imagine my confusion when I got an e-mail yesterday from the organization that stated the organization "regrets to inform you that you have not been chosen as the successful candidate to provide Services for Communications Advisory, Writing and Project Support Services." On reading that, my first thought was, "I wasn't chosen as THE successful candidate?" But they specifically said they were looking for multiple service providers. Here, use of the definite article raises a question of whether, contrary to the wording of the RFP and the response to the questions, in fact, the organization intended to choose only one proponent.

On re-reading the e-mail, my guess is that the person who sent it used a standard response template (one used for RFPs where a single proponent is chosen) and simply cut and pasted in the description of the type of services sought. Fair enough, but such carelessness results in a lingering question about the organization's intent in issuing the RFP -- a result I'm sure the organization would have preferred to avoid -- and could easily have avoided if they'd have been mindful of the difference between definite and indefinite articles.


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