Difference between 'the owner' and 'an owner'

This is driving me mad! Is 'the owner' when they are the only owner, and 'an owner' when they are one of more than one owners? Or can any of the owners be referred to as 'the owner'?

Please help!

Comments

  • @RebeccaDavies, both the owner and an owner are incomplete phrases. In our heads they must be completed with 'of such-and-such' — even if we don't explicitly say so. If we say

    He's an owner but he doesn't own anything
    or
    He's the owner but he doesn't own anything

    either we're talking nonsense, or we're striving for some novel meaning of owner.

    We express the relationship with of. For example:

    He's the owner of the horse
    She's the owner of the car

    On the surface, this seems to be the same construction as

    the tail of the horse
    the length of the car

    But there's a semantic difference. These phrases express:

    the PART of the WHOLE
    the PROPERTY of the OBJECT

    The first noun is something unique. We wouldn't in any normal context say

    the tails of the horse
    the lengths of a car

    But with owner the relationship is different

    the POSSESSOR of the POSSESSION

    As you observe, the first noun is not unique. We can easily say

    the owners of the car
    the owners of a horse

    And yet we feel a similarity with the other constructions. Perhaps it's the superficial similarity that leads us to assume that — in the absence of evidence to the contrary — owner also refers to something unique. When this is not the case we mark our reference

    one of the owners
    a joint-owner
    a part-owner

    We may be free to choose when the POSSESSION expression is unstated but implicit.
    If we're at a race-course, we can point to someone and say

    He's an owner

    We can choose an because he's INDEFINITE — we haven't mentioned him before

    Moreover the unstated POSSESSION expression would be INDEFINITE: a horse or horses

    There's less freedom when a group of people are gathered around a single horse. In this context we can point and say

    He's the owner

    The implied POSSESSION expression is of the horse

    Here the mindset kicks in which assumes a single owner for a single possession. If this is not the case, we use a marked expression such as

    He's a part-owner

    At the race-course we were able to think of

    an owner

    This could be someone who owns several horses. Or it could be one of several people who each own a horse.

    There's less choice and less ambiguity when the POSSESSION is the topic of conversation.

    1
    A: (pointing) Do you recognise this car?
    B: Yes, I'm the owner.

    2
    A: (pointing) Do you recognise any of these cars car?
    B: Yes, I'm an owner.

    3
    A: (pointing) Do you recognise any of these cars car?
    B: Yes, I'm the owner.

    In all cases the assumption is that owner means 'sole owner'.
    In the first exchange there's only one car, and so one owner.
    In the second and third exchanges, there are several cars and an unknown number of owners.

    • By saying an owner in the second exchange, B signals that there are several owners.
    • In the third exchange, the owner signals that B owns all the cars.

    So, to the questions:

    Is 'the owner' when they are the only owner, and 'an owner' when they are one of more than one owners?

    I'd say 'the owner' is when we assume they are the only owner of something definite, and 'an owner is when we know they are one of more than one owners of something indefinite.
    To this I'd add that 'an owner' is also when they are one among more than one owners of something, each being the only owner of their particular something.

    Or can any of the owners be referred to as 'the owner'?

    In certain contexts — but with the meaning 'the relevant owner'. For example
    if a car is jointly owned but one of the owners has been caught driving without it without insurance
    if you're buying a house which is jointly owned but dealing with one of the joint owners

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