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The articles in English (1).


After considering the history of the label 'article', this paper shows how, although the and a(n) do make up a grammatical system in Modern English (being mutually exclusive), the two articles have quite different roles in the grammar. The developed from a demonstrative and is nowadays only sometimes substitutable for one. A(n) developed from the number modifier one and has diverged far from it. The generic use of the two articles is contrasted, and also what happens when there is an underlying sequence of articles.

1. Introduction

The label "article" was used for a word class in Classical Greek which had two members--what we would call "definite article" (the "preposed article") and what we would call "relative pronoun" (the "postposed article"). These two grammatical words showed similar morphology, having gender, number and case inflections. The definite article had evolved from a demonstrative. There was nothing corresponding to "indefinite article". No class of articles was recognised for Latin, nor for Old English.

Modern English (NE) has the, which developed from a demonstrative in Old English, and a(n), which developed from a reduction of the cardinal number one. Almost every grammarian of NE groups the and a(n) together, either as part of a major word class (generally adjective, but pronoun and preposition have also been suggested--see Michael 1970: 350-61) or as a separate class.

2. Articles as a grammatical system in Modern English

In NE the pre-head structure of an NP with a common noun as head is (Dixon 2005: 26):

a) an adverb which modifies a complete NP, e.g. even, simply, really; or what a or such a;

b) a predeterminer, e.g. all (of), some (of), both (of), one (of), another (of), any (of), one-quarter (of);

c) a determiner, which can be an article (the, a), a demonstrative (e.g. this, those) or a possessive word or NP (my, John's, the old man's);

d) a superlative (tallest, most beautiful), a comparative (taller, more beautiful); or an ordering word (next, last) and/or a cardinal number (three) or a quantifier (many, few) or qualifier (some, any);

e) an ordinal number, e.g. fourth;

f) one or more adjectival modifiers;

g) one or more modifiers describing composition (e.g. wooden), origin or style (e.g. British), purpose/beneficiary (e.g. rabbit in rabbit food, medical in medical building).

Although only one element may be chosen from slots (a), (b), (c) and (e), there may be more than one in the other slots. Examples with two or three selections from slot (d) are: many taller entrants and two next fastest horses.

It is the custom to group together English the and a(n) as articles, and to say that they occur as determiners, in slot (c). For the, this is the same slot as demonstratives, from which the definite article evolved. And (c) must be the slot for the since it can precede a full array of choices from slot (d); for example, the (c) next (d) two (d) fastest (d) horses.

Many examples of complex NPs including a(n) could be explained equally well whether a(n) were in slot (c) or in slot (d). Compare a taller man and a last prayer with three (d) taller (d) men and one (d) last (d) prayer. The justification for placing a(n) in slot (c) lies in NPs such as a (c) shorter (d) last (d) prayer; sentences such as *one shorter last prayer or *three shorter last prayers are scarcely acceptable (they could only be produced in the most contrived circumstances).

Note that any of the items in slot (b) can be followed by the from slot (c) plus a head noun in plural inflection; for example all/some/both/one/any/one-quarter of the dogs. A(n) can only be used with a singular noun and so is not possible (save in highly unusual contexts) after most slot (b) items; one would not normally say, for instance, *all/some/any of a dog. However, fractions may be followed by a(n) plus a singular noun, as in one-quarter of a cake.

The quantifiers many and few, in slot (d), pattern with numbers and may be preceded by the--see (34-5). However, some and any, from the same slot, behave quite differently (note that these items are semantically and functionally different from some (of) and any (of) in slot (b)).

The quantifiers some and any--as in I saw some boy(s) in the park, I didn't see any boy(s) in the park--cannot be preceded by either article. Some and any are similar to a(n) in referring to unspecifed member(s) of a set (they differ from a(n) in not being restricted to singular reference); we do not get *a some or *an any, since this would involve double marking of "unspecified". And since some and any represent something which is not identified, they cannot co-occur with the.

3. Their meaning and function

Although they are mutually exclusive, which justifies their being placed in one grammatical system, the two articles have quite different roles in the grammar. Their central meanings are:

* the indicates that the referent of the NP it occurs in should be identifiable to the addressee;

* a(n) refers to one unspecified member of a set of countables (for example, it can occur with coin or ripple, but not with money or mud).

Note that quite different factors are involved in the two specifications. That for the does not relate to number or countability; an NP with the can involve a countable or uncountable noun, and if a countable it may be marked with singular or plural inflection.


1) He's the winner.

2) He's a winner.

(1) is incomplete; if it is not clear from the context or preceding discourse, one should specify what he is the winner of; for example of the two o'clock race. In contrast (2) is an acceptable sentence without any context being supplied. It would mean, at the least, that he won one thing once; in fact (2) will often be taken to mean that he wins habitually.

There are certain written styles which often omit the but in contrast retain a(n). A significant number (but a minority on my shelf) of cookery books find little need for the definite article in their recipes. For example (underlining the omissions and retentions):

3) Clean -- cauliflower ... Transfer -- mixture to a souffle dish ... Bring -- water to the boil again.

Headline writers in newspapers typically omit the and all forms of be--whether copula or auxiliary--to save space (they will retain them if space is available). Examples include:

4) -- drug squad -- hit by -- leader's departure

5) -- night Africa came alive to -- magic of Ali

However, as in recipes, a(n) is seldom omitted from headlines, as shown by:

6) -- dip in -- iodine level -- a worry

7) Parole -- a distinct hope for prisoner

One sometimes comes across a paradigm of the articles, something like:

SINGULAR a(n) the
PLURAL o or some the

This is misconceived. Firstly, number is not relevant for the and it is misleading to refer to it. Secondly, there is no clear non-singular equivalent of a(n); many or (a) few could be suggested just as well as zero or some, but none of these is appropriate.

4. The and demonstratives

Demonstratives this/these and that/those can function as a complete NP or as a determiner, in slot (c). Some occurrences of a demonstrative as determiner may be substituted by the with no substantial difference in meaning.

Demonstratives have two kinds of anaphoric function--substitution anaphora and textual anaphora (see Dixon 2003).

a) SUBSTITUTION ANAPHORA. Here the anaphoric NP (which includes the demonstrative) substitutes for a full NP, which could have been repeated in place of the anaphoric constituent. For example (underlining both the anaphoric NP and the NP it is anaphoric on):

8) He gets a large salary, but that/this salary doesn't meet all his needs.

9) She died on Thursday and (on) that afternoon they had a party.

In (8), the could be used in place of that or this. Similarly in (9), but note that with the demonstrative one can say either that afternoon or on that afternoon whereas with the definite article one must say in the afternoon. In versions of (8) and (9) with the definite article, the salary and the afternoon are uniquely specified--the large salary that he gets, and the afternoon of the day she died, Thursday. In summary, a demonstrative in slot (c), with substitution anaphoric function, can generally be replace by the.

b) TEXTUAL ANAPHORA. This involves an NP with a demonstrative which refers back not to an NP but to a proposition which is typically a clause but could be a lengthy stretch of discourse. For example:

10) He drinks excessively and for that reason Mary left him.

11) He doesn't study and this behaviour worries Mary.

The definite article the may not substitute for a demonstrative in textual anaphoric function. It appears that only a deictic determiner may be used, referring back to something larger in extent than an NP.

There is plainly considerable variation across different genres of spoken and written English, but examination of a selection of samples suggests that something like half the occurrences of demonstratives as determiners could be replaced by the. (2) For example, many utterances employ a deictic for a uniquely recognisable referent, which could equally well be specified by the, as in:

12) This (/the) suit fits well.

13) Where did you buy that (/the) hat?

14) Did you get that (/the) cheque which I sent?

15) I chose that (/the) solution which I considered most appropriate.

16) With regard to human observation this (/the) world has neither a beginning nor an end.

The demonstrative that has a further sense as intensifier with an adjective or adverb, a function which is not open to the; for example, He was that angry, I've never seen anyone behave that stupidly. And, in an appropriate context, that or this may modify a proper noun with derogatory overtones, as in Who's this Mrs Smith who wants to see me? and I hate that George W. Bush. The can be used with a proper name in completely different circumstances, when identifying one of a number of people (or rivers, etc.) that share the same name. For example, I mean the Murray River just south of Tully, not the big Murray River in the south.

Whereas about half of the instances of demonstratives as determiners (in the textual samples I examined) may be replaced by the, only a very small number--less than five per cent--of the instances of the could be replaced with a demonstrative. These include:

17) He noticed fossilised fish remains embedded in the rock; the (/these) remains suggested that volcanic activity had raised the rock.

Here the remains, an instance of substitution anaphora, could be replaced by a deictic anaphora, these remains. Another example is:

18) He arrived on a Thursday and by the (/that) Saturday had settled the estate.

Other instances of possible substitution of a demonstrative for the involve a slight addition of meaning. Consider:

19) She sat outside in the hot sun.

One could say in that hot sun, with that adding a deprecatory sense of the hot sun not being a good thing. And in

20) The Smiths always vote Republican.

the refers to a particular group of people called Smith. One could, alternatively, say, Those Smiths always vote Republican, with those implying a negative attitude towards them.

Slot (c) of NP structure involves a choice between an article, a demonstrative and a possessor. In quite a few instances, the can be replaced by an appropriate possessor, as in

21) She took him by the (/his) hand.

22) How's the (/your) family?

23) How's the (/your) wife?

24) The (/my) wife'll be along later.

It is interesting (and surely socially significant) that husband could not be substituted for wife in (23-24). One can only say your/my husband, rather than *the husband.

Generally, the is used to identify the unique referent of the NP in which it occurs, as in The best (one) of all, The first in line, and:

25) After the election, the winning candidate will be the president for the next four years.

Certain abstract nouns (and some adjectives when functioning as NP head) take the; for example:

26) I think a lot about the future.

27) Don't dream of the impossible!

And the can also have generic reference, as in (see also [section] 6):

28) The telephone is a mixed blessing.

29) Do you play the piano?

There are some grammatical constructions which require one or more definite articles. These include the correlative comparative, as in The longer the better, The more the merrier and The more hours you work the more we'll pay you as well as set expressions like (He's) the worse for drink.

The can be used with a noun at its introductory mention, if a unique referent is understood. For example, The vicar knocked on the door, The boss always reads the paper on the train in the morning, and Beware of the dog!

Generally, if the head of an NP is a common noun then it will take the for referential specification. If the head is a proper noun, this should have unique reference, so no article is required. However, a number of common nouns referring to geographical features or buildings are often omitted when modified by a proper name, so that the NP now consists just of the proper noun. An interesting feature is that a definite article which was required by the common noun head is retained when the common noun is omitted. For instance
30) the Atlantic (ocean) the Amazon (river) the Hilton (hotel)
 the Louvre (gallery) the Andes (mountains) the Hebrides (islands)

Another point of interest is that when the common noun is omitted, its plural ending may be transferred to the proper noun, as in the Shetland islands, yielding the Shetlands.

In Sir William Jones's famous speech of 1786, he mentions the Sanscrit language and then just the Greek and the Latin, (3) following the same principle as in (30). During the last two centuries this habit of including the before the name of a language has dropped out of use.

The has a further role, indicating that something is the best of its kind. In Classical Greek, the definite article was used in exactly this way, so that "The Poet" was used to refer to Homer and "The Stagirite" for Aristotle (considered the most esteemed person to come from Stagira) (Harris 1765: 223). Similar use of the definite article in Modern English is seen in This is the life! and It'll be the event of the year: Americans speak of the president and everyone on earth refers to the sun and the moon. The first Sherlock Holmes short story, "A scandal in Bohemia", commences: "To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman" (italics in original).

There is an interesting contrast between the inclusion and omission of the before the name of a limited set of institutions. Compare:

31) The choirboy is going to church/school.

32) The plumber is going to the church/school.

In (31) the boy is going to church to take part in a service or to school to take part in lessons, while in (32) the plumber is going to mend a burst pipe. For the plumber, the church/school is simply a building which, like almost all buildings, has pipes that can burst, and so it is appropriate to include the in (32). However, the is omitted--as in (31)--when someone is going to an institution to take part in the normal, defining business of that institution.

In British English, the definite article can be omitted after an appropriate preposition with a small number of names of institutions. The main ones are
33) after to, from, in, at before school, church, college, university
 after to, from, in before town, prison, hospital, theatre
 (only for operating theatre in a

Other dialects of English show variation. For example, in American English, the cannot be omitted from before hospital (Trudgill and Hannah 1982: 61).

Note that the can also be omitted from He's lying in (the) bed and He's getting out of (the) bed since these are prototypical activities with respect to a bed.

But it is not possible to omit the from He's sitting on the bed or He loves jumping on the bed.

In summary, we have seen that:

* the definite article the developed from demonstratives;

* many instances of demonstratives in texts can be replaced by the with no appreciable difference in meaning (for example, the may be used in place of a demonstrative in substitution anaphora, but not in textual anaphora);

* rather few textual instances of the may be replaced by a demonstrative; where this is possible, it often involves a certain difference of meaning or emphasis;

* the serves to uniquely identify the referent of the NP it occurs in (irrespective of countability or number); it also occurs in set constructions such as The more he eats the less he speaks;

* the may be dropped from between one of a set of locational prepositions and one of a small set of nouns describing institutions, as in The elderly patient is still in theatre.

5 A(n) and the number modifier one

The indefinite article a(n) developed out of one, used as a number modifier in slot (d) of NP structure. Indeed, one function of a(n) is to be the unstressed equivalent of one. Consider an NP X rabbit(s), where X is a number or quantifier. We can focus on the identity of X, as in column (a)--where the number or quantifier is stressed (shown by ')--or on rabbit(s), as in (b)--where the noun is stressed.
34) (a) (b)
 'one rabbit a 'rabbit
 'two rabbits}
 'five rabbits}
 'twenty rabbits} [??] 'rabbits
 'many rabbits}
 'few rabbits}

Regular count nouns in English take an obligatory number inflection, with zero suffix for singular and -s for plural. If the actual non-singular number is not to be specified, nothing precedes 'rabbits. With singular number, and stress on 'rabbit, one must be replaced by a.

Note that any of the expressions in (34) may be identified by preposing the, giving:
35) (a) (b)
 the 'one rabbit the 'rabbit
 the 'two rabbits}
 the 'five rabbits}
 the 'twenty rabbits} the 'rabbits
 the 'many rabbits}
 the 'few rabbits}

Since the simply precedes everything else in (35), we might expect the a 'rabbit. However, the and a make up a single grammatical system and are mutually exclusive, so that we just get the 'rabbit (see [section] 7).

One can also place this/these or that/those or a possessor before each of the NPs in (34), and again a is dropped after this or that or a possessor. Only one choice may be made from slot (c) in NP structure, covering demonstratives, possessors and the two articles.

Note that it is possible to have the and a in the same complex NP:

36) The more than 'two million/'one million/a 'million people who voted for John were disappointed when he did not get elected

But here more than a 'million functions as a complex modifier within the NP; the and more than a 'million are modifiers to people. The essential point is that the and a are not direct members of the same constituent, and they are not contiguous.

Consider the question:

37) Could a 'boy lift that plank?

and two possible answers:

38) No, (a 'boy couldn't) but a 'man could.

39) No, ('one boy couldn't) but 'two boys could.

The words in parentheses could be omitted but if included serve to make explicit the contrast--in (38) between 'man and 'boy (each with the unstressed form a) and in (39) between 'one boy and 'two boys (with the number stressed). These examples clearly show that a functions here as the unstressed variant of one.

Examining text samples across different genres, there are just a few instances of one in slot (d). For example:

40) You get maybe 'one authentic talent in every 'hundred students.

The point of employing (stressed) 'one here is the contrast with 'hundred (also stressed); the contrast requires one, rather than a. Consider also:

41) She said 'one short word: "Good".

The emphasis here is on the fact that a single word was given, and stress falls on 'one. If the focus was on the length of the word, stress would go on 'short and one would be replaced by a: She said a 'short word: "Good".

When a single item is to be focussed on, a common means is to use one of (slot b) followed by the (slot c) in preference to one (slot d), as in

42) This is one of the assumptions behind the American revolution.

43) It is one of the great achievements of my sporting career.

One could substitute a(n) for one of the-- -s, with more felicity in the case of (42) than for (43). Such a replacement simply removes the focus from being on a single item from the full set of items.

There are circumstances in which a can replace one with little difference in meaning or emphasis. For example:

44) They have four dogs and one (/a) cat.

However, there are set expressions where only one is possible, such as one day soon

Only about five per cent of the instances of a(n) in the textual samples were replaceable by one. These include:

45) About a (/one) third of the way into the debate.

46) He didn't pay him a (/one) cent.

47) It was only an (/one) hour.

In each instance, when one is used in place of a, it attracts stress away from the following lexeme.

The great majority of instances of a(n) could not, in the textual context in which they occur, be replaced by one. Consider first:

48) He lives in a palace.

49) An ink that will dry easily.

One could only be substituted for a(n) here if a contrast were introduced, as with one ... another or one ... two:

50) He lives in 'one palace and works in 'another.

51) 'One ink that will dry easily and 'two that won't.

However, the great majority of instances of a(n) do not implicitly relate to one. The indefinite article simply indicates an unspecified member of a set, as in He is a cheat, Is this a red wine?, A frown darkened his face. Note, though, that only nouns which are countable may be preceded by a(n). One can say

52) I have a right to know.

since right is countable (one can say, I know my rights). But one cannot say * He made the offer with a sincerity, since sincerity is not countable. (There are, however, set expressions with a plus a non-countable noun, as in (do it) with a vengeance).

A(n) also has a somewhat unusual use, preceding a human propensity adjective which modifies a proper name or title, as in

53) An emotional Marilyn Monroe came forward to accept the award.

54) A delighted chairman of the board told shareholders there had been a record profit.

In such instances, the article relates to the adjective rather than to the head of the NP; in essence, the chairman was in a delighted mood.

And there are a number of set phrases which include a(n), including:
what a (shame) a few (of)
such a (disaster) a lot (of)
many a (slip) a little (of)
much of a (size) a bit of a

The indefinite article is used to mean 'for each', as in a dollar a day, sixpence a dozen, and the set phrase two at a time.

As pointed out by Jespersen (1933: 177) "while little and few are negative terms, a little and a few are positive". Two of his examples are:

55) There are few mistakes in his papers (less than one might expect, i.e. praise).

56) There are a few mistakes in his papers (there should have been none, i.e. criticism).

In appropriate circumstances, a noun following a number in slot (d) may be omitted, leaving the number as, effectively, head of the NP. For example:

57) one man taller than me

57') one taller than me

58) two men taller than me

58') two taller than me

Following the paradigm in (34), we could replace one man by a man and two men by men, giving:

59) a man taller than me

60) men taller than me

However, man/men could not be omitted from (59-60), as they can be from (57-58); that is, we cannot have an NP * a taller than me or * taller than me. That is, one can be a modifier as in (57) or a head noun as in (58) but a(n) may only be a determiner.

There are two forms one which can function as a complete NP: the generic pronoun--as in One shouldn't do that--and the number--as in (57') and in I'll have one but give Mary two (for these NPs it could be suggested that a following head noun, understood by speaker and addressee, has been omitted).

Such a one, which is effectively NP head, can be preceded by a(n) if a modifier intervenes:

61) a Have one last drink before you go

b Okay, I'll have a last one, if you make it a small one

Sentence (61b) is acceptable in all varieties of English. One can also get a plus one with nothing intervening in some colloquial varieties. For example:

62) You're a one (for the ice-cream)!

63) He's a one (for making eyes at girls)!

The meaning is 'indulge in it a lot', with jocular overtones. (Note that one would not be likely to say, I'm a one.) The adjective real may be included: You're/He's a real one for ...

Since the indefinite article a(n) developed from the number one, it would be expected to take some time before a(n) became sufficiently grammatically detached for it to be able to occur with one. The first stage would be as in (61b), with a(n) and one separated by another word. The final stage, as in (62-3) with the sequence a one, appears to be just being introduced in colloquial speech and will no doubt in due course work its way up into formal (and written) styles.

In summary, we have seen that:

* the indefinite article a(n) developed from one used as a number modifier in an NP;

* in some occurrences, a(n) still functions as an unstressed variant of one;

* a(n) has a non-contrastive sense; it must be substituted by one if there is a contrast such as one ... two or one ... another;

* in most instances of use, a(n) has moved away from association with one and simply indicates an unspecified member of a set;

* a(n) can still only be used--like one--with countable nouns;

* the indefinite article has a special grammatical function in constructions like A happy Franklin D. Roosevelt accepted the nomination; and in phrases like a bit of a muddle.

6. Generic use of articles

As mentioned in [section] 4, the is often used in a generic sense, as in (28-9), The aeroplane has revolutionised travel and I dislike the bagpipes. In addition, a(n), or just the plural form of a countable (or the unmarked form of a countable), can be used with a generic sense. Compare:
64) The fox is a cunning animal [comparing the prototypical fox to
 other animals].
65) A fox is a cunning animal [any unspecified member of the set of
66) Foxes are cunning animals [the whole class].

The bracketed comments provide an explanation of the meaning of each sentence. But (64), (65) and (66) can have equivalent pragmatic import.

In different contexts, only some of the generic possibilities may be felicitous. For example:

67) A cat is more vigilant than a dog.

68) Cats are more vigilant than dogs.

69) *? The cat is more vigilant than the dog.

It seems that, with respect to vigilance, one can compare unspecified members of the classes of cats and dogs, or the entire classes, but scarcely the prototypical animals.

And compare (with explanations similar to those for 64-6)

70) You can't trust a Hun.

71) You can't trust Huns.

72) You can't trust the Hun.


73) You can't trust a cat.

74) You can't trust cats.

75) * You can't trust the cat.

The fact that one can say (72) but not (75) is due to the fact that the Hun refers to the entire nation of Huns, meaning that one cannot trust the leaders of this nation. There is no equivalent interpretation of the cat. (Note that in each of these sentences you has a generic sense, in keeping with the generic nature of the statements. The sentences would not be felicitous if I or she or John were substituted for you.)

This would be a fertile field for further research.

7. Underlying sequence of articles

Since the and a(n) are mutually exclusive, in instances where one might expect a sequence of articles, only one may appear. (This discussion is based on Jespersen 1949: 468-9.)

i) Underlying the plus a. As shown in (34-5) of [section] 5, where the plus a would be expected, we get just the.

ii) Underlying a plus the. If there are several paintings by Raphael called The Madonna and Child, one could say:

76) I looked at a [The] Madonna and Child by Raphael.

In each of (i) and (ii), the first of an underlying sequence of articles is retained: the a becomes the and a the comes out as a.

We can also get a sequence of underlying the the, as in (78) or a a, as in (80), in each instance reducing to just one occurrence.

77) He lives at the end of Bedford Street nearest to The Strand.

78) He lives at the [The] Strand end of Bedford Street.

79) I have a suitcase which is a little heavier than yours.

80) I wish I had a [a] little heavier suitcase.


Christophersen, Paul 1939 The articles, a study of their theory and use in English. Copenhagen: Einar Munksgaard.

Declerck, Renaat 1991 A comprehensive descriptive grammar of English. Tokyo: Kaitakuska.

Dixon, R. M. W. 2003 "Demonstratives, a cross-linguistic typology", Studies in language 27. 61-112.

2005 A semantic approach to English grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harris, James 1765 Hermes: Or, a philosophical inquiry concerning language and universal grammar. Second edition. London: J. Nourse and P. Valliant.

Jespersen, Otto 1933 Essentials of English grammar. London: George Allen and Unwin.

1949 A Modern English grammar on historical principles, Part VII, syntax. London: George Allen.

Michael, Ian 1970 English grammatical categories, and the tradition to 1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Trudgill, Peter--Jean Hannah 1982 International English, a guide to varieties of Standard English. London: Edward Arnold.


La Trobe University, Melbourne

(1) I have benefited from the most helpful comments on a draft of this paper from Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald and Kate Burridge. I have consulted information on articles in many grammars and dictionaries. Christophersen (1939), Jespersen (1949) and Declerck (1991) have been of especial use.

(2) For example, in the first sentence of the abstract to this paper, this cannot be substituted by the. A further example is Our city store is having a sale later this month.

(3) "The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident ..." (Italics in original).
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Title Annotation:LINGUISTICS
Author:Dixon, R.M.W.
Publication:Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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