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Is it just me, or does the sentence "he broke one of his teeth" sound a little bit awkward? Wouldn't it be better simply to say "he broke a tooth"? After all, it is well known that most people have more than one tooth - it doesn't seem necessary to emphasize it. If we extend this a little further, I think we can all agree that it is better to say "he stuck his arm out of the window" than "he stuck one of his arms out of the window". Still, I can't help but wonder: is it acceptable to say "he broke one of his teeth" or is it considered bad English?

Does the same rule apply when discussing objects? For instance, is it better to say "I've retrieved some of my old toys from one of the boxes in my pantry" or "I've retrieved some of my old toys from a box in my pantry"? In this case, for some reason, both sentences seem equally correct. Am I right?
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Hi,

I think we use 'one of' when we mentally count.

Let's see how many teeth that he broke. He broke (only) one of his teeth.
Thank you, but that doesn't really answer my question. Obviously, in that context, I would use "one of" too. In a stand-alone sentence, however, it becomes unclear whether to use "a" or "one of". For example, suppose that you are in a dentist's office and the secretary asks you about the nature of your ailment, would you be more inclined to say "I've broken a tooth" or "I've broken one of my teeth"? Similarly, would you find it odd if you overheard a patient say "I've broken one of my teeth" instead of "I've broken a tooth"?

Also, what do you think of my example pertaining to objects?
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As an alternative

It sounds ok to say he broke one of his legs or he broke his leg or broke a leg

Irregular verbs and nouns always cause problems
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MarvinTheMartianIn a stand-alone sentence, however, it becomes unclear whether to use "a" or "one of".
I think one thing you seem to have forgotten is that in real life and in real language, sentences are generally not "stand-alone". In real language, there is generally some kind of context. The context might be verbal and/or non-verbal.
MarvinTheMartianFor example, suppose that you are in a dentist's office and the secretary asks you about the nature of your ailment, would you be more inclined to say "I've broken a tooth" or "I've broken one of my teeth"?
I might say either "one of my teeth" or "a tooth". What I probably would not do is use the present perfect.Emotion: wink
MarvinTheMartianSimilarly, would you find it odd if you overheard a patient say "I've broken one of my teeth" instead of "I've broken a tooth"?
No, not at all.
MarvinTheMartianAlso, what do you think of my example pertaining to objects?
Saying "I broke one of my arms" is a slightly different case. Since I only have two arms, I'm pretty sure my own choice of words would be pretty limited to one of these two:
- I broke my arm.
- I broke my left/right arm.

Saying "I broke one of my arms" might tend to sound a bit like you are a person with many arms. Likewise, I think it would be more natural or common to say "He stuck his arm out the window" rather than "one of his arms". Still, I don't really see anything inherently or grammatically wrong with saying "one of his arms".

Just some thoughts. Emotion: wink
Thank you everyone for your replies. My next question is for Yankee: why can't I use the present perfect here? While I'll admit that "I broke a tooth" is more colloquial and sounds more natural than "I've broken a tooth", the latter phrasing seems more logical to me. After all, the sentence doesn't specify when the incident occurred. Furthermore, it indicates that the result of said incident (the tooth being broken) is still observable and continues to affect me in the present (or else I wouldn’t be at the dentist's office.)

Using the same logic, if someone had just shot me with a gun and I had to explain the situation to a doctor, I would more likely say "I've been shot" or "I've just been shot" than "I was shot". For some reason, "I was shot" just doesn't sound right in this context. The following constructions, however, seem correct to me: "I was just shot" and "I just got shot". Is my reasoning correct?

I'll be honest with you: I'm even more mixed up than when I posted my original question! Yikes! Help!
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Hi Marvin

I made my comment about the present perfect because I think it would be far more likely for someone speaking AmE to use the simple past tense (I broke a/my tooth or I broke one of my teeth), and because I felt quite sure that the simple past tense is what I'd use most often in a sentence like that. There is nothing wrong with using the present perfect in the sentence, but it simply is not likely to be the tense I'd choose when reporting the fact that I broke a tooth or an arm. It would be clear in my mind that the breakage happened at a specific point in the past. If I weren't sure that my arm was broken, for example, I might tell a doctor "I think I broke my arm", or I might say "I think my arm is broken", or "I think I've got a broken arm", or maybe I'd say "I think I might have broken my arm". It's possible that I might say "I think I've broken my arm", but to me that is far less likely than any of the other possible sentences I've mentioned. Possibly it might be more common in BE to use the present perfect in a sentence such as that.

The point is that there are usually a number of ways of expressing any one idea. Some will inevitably be used more commonly than others. The broader context generally plays a part in choice of words. Sometimes differences in ways of saying things are rooted in which "brand" of English is being used (BE vs AmE, for example). As to whether it is preferable to say "a tooth", "my tooth", or "one of my teeth", I don't think you can say that any one of them is "wrong" or "the best". To me, they all express basically the same idea when listed side-by-side in "stand-alone" fashion. The primary difference is that "a tooth" could possibly refer to someone else's tooth, or it might even be something other than a tooth in a mouth -- the broader context would have to clarify that.
Thank you Yankee for your detailed answer, but I'm still hopelessly confused about when to use the present perfect and when to use the simple past. You brought up an interesting point about the differences between American English and British English. I wonder if a Brit would find it more natural to say "I've broken my arm" or "I broke my arm". Perhaps a few more examples will make it clearer for me. For instance, in the following dialogue, would you say "I took" or "I've taken":

A: Where's my favorite coffee mug? I can't find it. It's not in the cupboard.

B: I took it out / I've taken it out. It's on the table.

According to your logic, one might argue that the action of taking the mug out of the cupboard took place in the past, which would warrant the use of the simple past. However, the result of said action affects the present (the mug is out of the cupboard and on the table). Can both tenses be used here? Which one sounds more natural to you?

I know I sound punctilious, but this is very important to me. After years of conversing with non-native speakers who mangle the English language at every turn, I find I can’t trust my own judgment anymore when it comes to expressing myself verbally.
MarvinTheMartianFor instance, in the following dialogue, would you say "I took" or "I've taken":

A: Where's my favorite coffee mug? I can't find it. It's not in the cupboard.

B: I took it out / I've taken it out. It's on the table.
I'm quite sure I'd usually say "I took it out". The use of the present perfect would become more likely if I added the word 'already' to the sentence:
"I've already taken it out."

However, even with 'already' in the sentence, many (possibly even a majority of) speakers of AmE will still use the simple past tense -- at least in everyday speech.

In your sentence B above, I would categorize the simple past tense (took) and the present perfect (have taken) as being equally correct. Both refer to a completed past action. The choice of one or the other is up to the speaker.

I taught English for years in Germany. One of the things I noticed about my German students was that they tended to misuse (and overuse) the present perfect extremely often, and to underuse the simple past tense. This was such a common problem that I finally started giving them a very simple rule of thumb to use when speaking:

If you're not completely sure whether to use the simple past tense or the present perfect, go with the simple past tense. That's not a guarantee that your grammar will be correct, but statistically speaking, you are much more likely to get it right. The simple past tense is used far more often in English than the present perfect is.

I'd read that more than 70% of English verb usage consists of just two tenses: the simple present and the simple past. That seemed right to me, and believe it or not, my simple "statistical rule" worked quite nicely for my "present-perfect-loving" German students in particular.

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