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The (in)definite article


The leader of the team is called the captain.

This is a sentence from a textbook. As far as I can judge it is a definition.
What do you think about the definite article before the noun team? Can I change it and use the indefinite article? Can I omit the article before the word captain?
Thank you!


  • On its own, this sentence is silly. The leader of a team may have various names. It depends on the sort of team.

    The sentence only makes sense within a text. If the textbook is well-written, I'm sure there's a previous sentence expressing the idea of a team — almost certainly with the word team.

    • I presume previous text spoke of one team, that's why this sentence says the team.

    • If the previous text had spoken of teams, then this sentence could say a team.

    Without an article the sentence means something different. We could say

    The leader of this team is called 'Captain'. The leaders of some other teams are called 'Boss' or 'Chief'.

    In this case, Captain is the form of address used just by the team members and people associated with the team.

    With an article, captain is the term used by everybody.

  • Thank you, David, for your answer. It's informative as always.
    Actually that sentence is taken from the answer to a task where students have to find any mistakes connected with article usage. It's a stand-alone sentence without any additional context.
    And in fact it contains the adverb usually. It was my fault I didn't write it.
    So the original sentence from the task is:

    d) The leader of the team is usually called captain.

    And the answer is:

    d) The leader of the team is usually called the captain.

    (By the way, can I say, ... called a captain?)
    Let's also compare that sentence with another definition.

    The leader of the government in some countries is called the Prime Minister.
    I think the prepositional phrase in some countries is not obligatory and it can be omitted.
    b. The leader of the government (in some countries)
    Can we use the same technique in case of the team in order to explain the using of the definite article?

  • The bracketed (in some countries) is not a signal that the information can be omitted. It's a warning that the start of the sentence is true for the topic of the lesson — the UK and Great Britain — but not universally true.

    I suppose putting the information in brackets is a signal that it's not relevant here, but is essential for the truth.

    Both usually in the textbook sentence and sin ome countries in the Collins dictionary are indeed 'obligatory' in that they turn an untrue statement into a true statement.

  • As I know from experience, it's extremely hard to compose a perfect multiple-choice English Language question.

    As with all testing, you aim for the impossible ideal:
    • The question should be relatively easy for the most proficient, and relatively difficult for the least proficient.
    • The question should be of medium difficulty.
    • Each of the choices should be plausible enough to be chosen by some.
    • It goes without saying (I think) that only one can be correct.
    • The test should produce the same result more than once. As it's impossible to test the same group twice (without wiping their memories, of course), you need to get a similar result when you test a comparable group.

    On top of all this, there's the problem of length. If you're testing sentence grammar, you tend to use texts of one sentence, or not much more. This is extremely problematic with test about articles, since so much of the grammar of definite articles depends on the surrounding text.

    I suspect that the textbook question you quote is designed for teaching more than the testing of proficiency. As such, it's not such a bad question as it would be in a proficiency test.

    The word usually is highly significant. It signals that the purpose of the sentence is to supply a term, a customary name, for a concept. This is not the same thing as a definition, which starts from the term, and supplies the appropriate matching concept. In this particular case, it isn't even the converse of a definition — since the word captain matches other concepts. In other words, captain doesn't just mean 'the leader of the team'.

    The word (and concept) usually is a heavy hint that we're dealing with the GENERIC REFERENCE use of the. Another hint is the phrase the team. All the hints suggest that we're not talking about a SPECIFIC team, but about teams in general. We consider the team as an example of the generality of teams. That's war's meant by GENERIC REFERENCE.

    It's a peculiarity of GENERIC REFERENCE the English often allows three choices.This is one such case, the choices being:

    The leader of the team is called the captain.
    A leader of a team is called a captain.
    Leaders of teams are called captains.

    There are stylistic differences — but these can't be identified in a single sentence in isolation.

    All in all, I'm pretty sure that the textbook was concerned with the teaching of GENERIC REFERENCE statements of general use involving the article the. In other languages with definite articles — French for example — the bare noun may be possible after a verb meaning 'call' or 'is called'. In English this is possible only after a small number of words such as appoint, elect, make.

    As I said in my first response, other article choices are possible. But they're not likely except in particular contexts which are made clear by the surrounding text. One possibility involves a difference sense of is called. I believe the appropriate way to punctuate this is The leader of the team is usually called 'Captain'.

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