A is for Articles (2)

24 01 2010

In the previous post on articles  – A is for articles (1) – I focused mainly on the indefinite article and attempted to correct the common misconception that the referents of a/an are both indefinite and non-specific. It’s possible, I argued, that something can be indefinite but also specific.

So what is definiteness, then? What makes a noun definite, and therefore eligible for a the in front of it? The most succinct explanation, for me, comes from M.A.K. Halliday:

The means ‘the [noun] in question is identifiable; but this will not tell you how to identify it – the information is somewhere around, where you can recover it.’ So whereas this train means ‘you know which train: – the one near me’, and my train means ‘you know which train: – the one I own’, the train means simply ‘you know which train’

(An Introduction to Functional Grammar, 1985, p. 161).

“The information is somewhere around where you can identify it”. What does Halliday mean by “somewhere around”?  There are two places that information can be “somewhere around”: in the shared world of the speakers (or reader and writer), i.e. the context; or in the shared world of the immediate text , i.e. the co-text. It is the interdependence of definite-ness and context that means that the definite article can only be taught, explained and practised in contexts that are normally larger than a sentence. It is less a grammatical item than a feature of discourse – and also of pragmatics. That is to say, its use can only really be explained by reference to the shared knowledge of speaker and listener (or reader and writer).

On the MA program I teach, I use this text (a translation of a 17th century Japanese poem) to present article usage.

I expected to see only pink blossoms

          but a gentle spring snow has fallen

and the cherry trees are wearing a white coat.


I ask these three questions:

1. Why is there no article (i.e. zero article) with pink blossoms?

2. Why a gentle spring snow and not gentle spring snow?

3. Why the cherry trees and not cherry trees?

Everything you need to know about the English article system is implicated in the answers to those three questions!



22 responses

25 01 2010

Is that a cliffhanger ending or just an ending? Do we have to join your MA to find out the answers?

25 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

Feel free to suggest answers – you may win an honorary MA! 😉

25 01 2010

Pink blossoms are the interesting ones for me here. The presence of a zero article suggests they are indefinit, but why indefinite? If the writer expected only pink blossoms surely they had specific blossoms in mind. if that is the case, why is there no definite article? This always used to bother me about the title of Joseph Conrad’s novella ‘Heart of Darkness’. The lack of a definite article could only be explained to me thematically as a way of suggesting ubiquity – the heart was everywhere, i.e., there was no heart. I wonder if also there is not a sense that when you use poems, poets are liable to pluralise and make things abstract by giving them, for example, zero articles, in order to sound more romantic. Definition and precision are anathema to romantic sensibilities, but, as you say, that is a matter of context.

25 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

“If the writer expected only pink blossoms surely they had specific blossoms in mind.”

Ok, so what makes something definite, and justifies the use of the definite article? If you go back to the Halliday quote (in my intro post) it’s not about that the writer (or speaker) has in mind that determines the choice, but about that the writer (or speaker) thinks that the reader (or listener) has in mind. In other words, imagine the definite article the like a little hand with the index finger extended, pointing at something that the writer/speaker assumes is present in the cognition of his/her interlocutor – either because it is physically present, or because it is part of some existing mental schema. If the poet had written “I expected to see the pink blossoms” he would be implying “you know which pink blossoms”. As it is, by using the zero article, he is saying “I know which pink blossoms, but you probably don’t, because this is the first time they have been mentioned”.

The question remains, though, as to why “the cherry trees” and not “cherry trees”?

As for Heart of Darkness, the lack of an article seems to be stylistic rather than semantic, and is a feature of names, headlines and titles. Normally, a countable noun (like heart) requires a determiner (a, the, my, this…) But ellipsis seems to be quite common in this labelling function. Portrait of a Lady is a another example. As is Elegy written in a Country Churchyard (Gray) or Song of Myself (Whitman) etc etc. The same principle extends to the titles of people, as in Elizabeth, Queen of England, or Brown, Chairman of the Board of Directors etc.

25 01 2010

Is it what the writer thinks the reader has in mind, or is it, rather, that the writer is constructing the reader, that there is an assumed reader, in fact, for this particular text (I can’t remember who came up with assumed readers – Jakobson, maybe?). Also, to complicate matters further, if I may, there is also the listener within the poem, the one addressed by the poem for whom the articles are intended, rather than the actual readership.
As for the cherry trees – does the article not index their initial presence beneath the cherry blossom? Or maybe I’m being a bit too literal.

25 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

“Is it what the writer thinks the reader has in mind, or is it, rather, that the writer is constructing the reader, that there is an assumed reader, in fact, for this particular text…?”

Yes, you’re right – the writer is imagining a ‘putative’ reader. And in fact, writer’s construct not just the reader but the reader’s mental schema as well – by indexing things as if they were there, as in the beginning of many stories and novels: “My first impression was that the stranger’s eyes were of an unusually light blue…” (Mr Norris Changes Trains, by Christopher Isherwood).

25 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

“As for the cherry trees – does the article not index their initial presence beneath the cherry blossom? Or maybe I’m being a bit too literal.”

Not at all. But of course the writer hasn’t actually mentioned cherry trees yet. Nevertheless, the mention of pink blossoms as it were implants a “cherry tree schema” in the reader’s mind (especially if they are Japanese) and hence the writer is now able to point to it (or, as you so well put it) index it.

25 01 2010

Excellent, as ever, and many thanks for your insights. Can I get my honorary MA now?

25 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

You’re well on the way! A few more entries in your intriguing blog, and it’s a done thing! 😉

25 01 2010
Peter Fenton

Making a wild stab in the dark, is the use of the indefinite article in ‘a gentle spring snow’ implying that only a layer of snow has fallen, whereas ‘gentle spring snow has fallen’ would leave the reader with some ambiguity as to how much snow has actually fallen. Or am I barking up the wrong cherry tree?

26 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

Not barking at all, Peter. I think you’ve captured the semantic difference well. Grammatically speaking, the difference is between countability and non-countability. Snow is typically uncountable, and therefore – when used indefinitely – takes zero article. But all nouns in English have the potential to be both countable and nouncountable. (There is a common subset that are taught early on, like chicken, paper, glass, hair etc). Thus we can distinguish between snow (the stuff), and snow (the event), as in a gentle spring snow. This duality is one of the fundamental principles underlying article use that I was referring to in my first posting.

26 01 2010

I am greatly pleased that Mr Halliday and me (or perhaps I should use “I” in such august company) have the same view of articles. Mine is rather more clumsily expressed: I have been telling students that the article is used, as Scott says, when the speaker/writer assumes that the listener/reader will know what they are on about. And to think, when I started teaching, my students would be forced to copy down: the article is used with names of hotels, rivers blah blah blah. However, it is not used with names of mountains…”

So, if I rely on my rather pragmatic definition, what do I tell as student who says that she spent a rather nice Christmas trekking up the Mount Everest? After all, she assumes that I know which Mt Everest she’s on about. But, I tell her, Mount Everest is a name. We don’t use articles with names. And she tells me how she plans to spend her Easter holiday swimming English (ahem) Channel.

If I don’t get an MA, would the knots I would have to tie myself in, explaining myself to this student, at least get me a Boy Scout Badge?

26 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

You’re correct in pointing out that there’s at least one aspect of zero article use that is not covered in my poem, and that is with proper nouns, as in “Diarmuid strikes again” or “Kiev is capital of Ukraine” (ahem). We have already seen this use generalised to descriptive titles of books, paintings etc (Reclining Nude; Portrait of a Lady…) Of proper nouns, Halliday has this to say “With proper nouns [the referent] is defined experientially: there exists only one, at least in the relevant body of experience… This means that typically there is no further specification… Proper names usually occur without any other elements of the nominal group”.

Where the proper noun consists of a noun phrase whose head is not typically a proper name, and is premodified by an adjective (United States, Red Sea, Daily Telegraph etc) the usual (nominal group, i.e. NP) rules apply.

Rather than teach these various uses as part of a lesson on articles (as is customary), piling exception on exception, it might make more sense just to have a lesson on Naming Stuff, whereby all the stylistic ways we use to name people and things could be the unique focus. That way, many of the general tendencies of article use (as in Halliday’s Law) might actually be reinforced rather than complicated. Compare, for example:

Pablo Picasso
Picasso’s Weeping Woman
Weeping Woman, by Picasso
a Picasso (was damaged)
The Picasso Museum in Paris…

26 01 2010

Still curious about WHY we say THE river thames. Are rivers special? (fans of the late Phoenix, this one’s not for you).

26 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

A lot of these seemingly idiomatic usages are simply historic – they are residue from how things used to be said before a wave of linguistic fashion (almost) swept them away. Thus (apparently) the reason why we say in bed, at work, to town etc dates back to a period when the definite article didn’t exist as such, and there were only demonstratives – a feature of English that still survives in some regions (as in There’s trouble at mill!). (I can’t find the reference for this – can anyone confirm? Is there an historical linguist on the list??)

26 01 2010

Why the cherry trees?

I’m not so sure.

Perhaps this would depend on the rest of the text. If cherry trees had previously been mentioned then “the” is used anaphorically – the cherry trees have already been mentioned.

Otherwise if the reference falls outside of the text and is exophoric – then it has to be assumed either the reader knows which cherry tress the writer is referring to.

If it’s reworded as “cherry trees are wearing a white coat” there is a sense that “all” cherry trees in the whole world are wearing a white coat!

By adding the definite article – this suggests that only a particular group of cherry trees are wearing a white coat!

My guess is that they are the trees the writer can see or the trees that are physically nearby. (if there is not some previous mention of cherry trees – or an unspoken shared cherry tree schemata between the writer and his intended audience)

26 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

Good thinking, Steph, but it’s not exactly the case that the refers to something in the text, or outside of it. More that it refers to something that the reader assumes to be shared knowledge between reader and writer. The text (or the physical context) is simply the medium by which this knowledge is shared. So the cherry trees needn’t have been mentioned, but simply implied, for them to have become shared knowledge. Take a more obvious example:

Carl got off work at three. He left the station and drove to a shoestore near his apartment. He put his foot on the stool and let the clerk unlace his workboot…

(the beginning of a story by Raymond Carver)

The station, the stool, the clerk: none of these are previous mentions, nor do they exist in the real world (it’s a work of fiction after all). But they are shared knowledge by virtue of the fact that they belong to the various schemata (mental constructs) that the writer is assuming are shared with his reader, i.e. that work implies commuting which implies stations; that shoeshops have stools and clerks, etc. Having evoked these schemata, the writer can safely point at features of them, using the definite article (which, remember, signifies “you know which one”).

On the other hand, change the text slightly, and you will leave the reader baffled, because the definite articles index no known reality:

Carl got off work at three. He left the statue and drove to a shoestore near his apartment. He put his foot on the stoop and let the cleric unlace his workboot…

27 01 2010

Ahh thanks Scott – a very clear explanation

13 03 2010

I’ve read a few entries of your blog, and find it quite interesting. I’ve been reading as much as I can about articles this week, and here’s my crack at the questions.

1. Pink blossoms aren’t specific to either the writer or the reader. The writer doesn’t have a specific set in mind: any set of pink blossoms.

2. The snow is specific to the writer (he can see it), but not to us readers. We’re being introduced to it.

3. We have to assume they’re the cherry trees that produced the pink blossoms that are covered in snow that the writer is looking at. It’s the context that makes them definite. If they’re not those cherry trees, then they’re not specific to us readers, and the definite article shouldn’t be used, or the noun should be post-modified to clarify.

I think the key to definiteness is that the noun is specific to both the reader AND the writer. If you ignore proper nouns, this rule seems to hold up pretty well.

I find indefiniteness a bit harder to get my head around. Theoretically, a noun should be indefinite if it isn’t specific to either or both the reader and the writer (quite obvious considering the above). Examples like the following have me stumped though.

‘The majority of illegally viewed TV shows were streamed online, with women watching an average of 4 hours per week.’

What’s the logic behind ‘an average’? We can easily infer which average is meant, yet it’s not definite. I find it hard to break down, since average generally becomes an adjective modifying a noun if we make it definite – ‘the average time women spent….’ How do we explain the choice of indefinite article here to students?

Re: mountains etc. I question giving rules like ‘we *usually* use the definite article with hotel names, mountain ranges, etc’. At what point does this become useful? Who is going to learn Alps on its own and then think about applying the definite article? The name is the Alps, and Alps means absolutely nothing on its own and would never be uttered. I think students should be encouraged to learn proper nouns like these as a single entity. You wouldn’t tell somebody your surname and try to get them to grammatically infer your first name.

29 05 2011
Milada Stočková

hello there, My problem is: he is the winner – my English techer says THE is generic, but it seems to be strange to me
thank you for your answer.
Milada, a Czech students from Pilsen, the city of beer

29 05 2011
Scott Thornbury

Milada – thanks for your question. I’m a little wary of taking sides on issues where confidence in a teacher might be at stake, so I’m not going to ‘rule’ on this, but simply recommend you consult any reputable learners’ grammar, e.g. The Good Grammar Book, by Swan and Walter (OUP), where I’m sure you’ll find the answer to your question! S.

29 05 2011

I’m really enjoying reading this discussion on articles. I suppose articles are a referencing tool, and so whether it be referencing within the text (cataphoric or anaphoric) or referencing the shared knowledge with the listener/reader (exophoric), the main idea we need to get across is that we’re appealing to the knowledge of the listener/reader saying ‘You know which one, don’t you?’ I particularly like your pointing analogy. Can I steal it? : )

But the best explanation on articles must have been from a Celta trainee some time ago. The rule he explained to students was as follows:
If you can touch it, you use ‘the’ and if you can’t you use ‘a’.

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