It seems strange that two of the smallest and most commonest words in the English dictionary could cause confusion between interviewer and interviewee but that is what ‘a’ and ‘the’ seemed to do on Sunday when Andrew Marr interviewed James Brokenshire, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, on the BBC.

Marr was keen to emphasise ‘a’ single market using the indefinite article. Brokenshire however was only too happy to interpret this as ‘the’ single market using the definite article.  The two words are among the most commonest words used in the English language but can have quite different meanings. The indefinite article ‘a’ has non-specific reference and suggests a single market yet to be agreed upon which will have different rules and regulations to the current single market. The definite article ‘the’ however has specific reference and refers to the current single market, the one which currently exist between EU members.

The Transcript

Marr (AM) starts off in 03 by referring to ‘a single market’ but Brokenshire (JB) talks about ‘the single market’ (line 06). Marr picks up on this and clearly signals his intention of referring to the non-specific market by putting stress on the definite article ‘a’ in line 08.

01 AM we both know
02    that what they really want out of this
03    is a single market for goods
04    are they gonna get it

05 JB well we don’t believe in (.)
06    being part of the single market
07    that’s what we will lea:ve

08 AM no I said a single market for goods

External link to clip

Brokenshire however refuses to engage with the concept of ‘a’ single market and instead talks about ‘the’ single market in line 11. Notice how Brokenshire, unlike Marr, never puts special emphasis on the article – he doesn’t want to highlight the fact that they might be two different concepts; it is convenient for him to ignore this.

09 JB well
10    but the point is
11    that if you have the single market
12    with all of the issues that that brings with it
13    in terms of freedom of movement
14    that is precisely what we are leaving
15    and the [Prime Minister being very clear
16 AM         [okay


A period of negotiation ensues in which Marr tries to reiterate that he is talking about ‘a’ single market and not ‘the’ single market. Several times he marks the article with special emphasis and even states in line 20 that he ‘dropped the definite pronoun’. (It is the definite article, Mr Marr, not a pronoun! But we will excuse that in the midst of a Sunday-morning tussle with a politician.)

17 JB on getting back [our control of our la:ws
18 AM                 [but I I I

19 JB [and our our migration
20 AM [I dropped er I dropped the definite pronoun

21 AM I said a single market on goods
22    is that a goer

23 JB well no but the single
24 AM a single a single

25 JB [well no no no I er
26 AM [not the single market
27    a single market on goods


Brokenshire however continues to talk about ‘the’ single market as if it is the only one that could ever exist. Marr ruefully in the end (lines 43-47) comments on why people get frustrated with this small but significant difference, before moving on.

28 JB but but the point is
29    that if you talk about the single market
30    you are talking about those other issues too
31    what we are talking about
32    is an ambitious free trade agreement
33    with our European partners
34    with that
35    lack of er of er a fle- er flexibility
36    to sure that we don’t see
37    a hard border in Northern Ireland
38    that we ensure that we
39    are able to trade internationally
40    and indeed
41    that we have that frictionless trade
42    the Prime Minister has spoken about

43 AM but this is exactly why
44    so many people get frustrated
45    I say a single market
46    you say the
47    and we get very very much tangled up in the words

BBC, The Andrew Marr Show, 1st July 2018