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!

A is for Articles (1)

12 12 2009

It’s somewhat ironic that two of the most common words in the language – the and a – are also the hardest to explain. It’s not that we lack data – maybe there’s too much data and it’s impossible to see the wood for the trees. At any rate, the definite and indefinite article must win the prize for having the most nonsense written about them in coursebooks and student grammars.

Here’s how one upper intermediate coursebook (name withheld out of courtesy) explains the indefinite article:

“We use the indefinite article a when we are talking about a single countable noun in a general non-specific way or when we introduce it for the first time: There was a car outside the bank.”


This explanation conflates and confuses a number of facts. Starting with the second rule first, this is easily disproved in sentences like: “We decided to eat at a restaurant. The waiter showed us to a table….” The waiter is first mention, yet takes the definite article. And, while we’re at it, what about second mention? According to the coursebook rules, the second mention of a noun is definite, and takes the. Well, what about this: “The waiter showed us to a table. It was a small table, so we asked for another…”  Second mention but indefinite article! 

But more on the discourse function of articles in another post.

Let’s go back to the first rule: “We use the indefinite article a when we are talking about a single countable noun in a general non-specific way…”

Wrong.  The indefinite article can be used for general AND specific reference:

A tiger will bite if provoked = any tiger (generic reference, and indefinite)

A tiger bit me when I provoked it = specific tiger, although indefinite.


Compare also:

Is there a doctor on board? = any doctor, one of the class of doctors (generic, indefinite)

I sat next to a doctor on board. = a specific doctor (specific, indefinite)


(The ambiguity inherent in the indefinite article is exploited in jokes like: In (such-and-such-a-city) a person gets mugged every ten minutes. And he’s getting mighty sick of it!)

The definite article – the – can also be used for both generic and specific reference, but in either case, there is an assumption of shared knowledge:

The tiger hunts by night and sleeps by day = generic, definite

The tiger bit me! = specific, definite.


In other words, for both a and the, there are two parameters that intersect: specificity, and definiteness. And they are not the same thing.

Nouns in the plural can also have generic or specific reference, but only when indefinite – i.e. with zero article:

Tigers hunt by night and sleep by day = generic, indefinite

Tigers bit me = specific, indefinite


The tigers bit me  = specific (NEVER generic), definite


In other words, you can’t say the tigers to mean the class of tigers – a common learner error: *I like the cats. *The bananas are good for you, etc.

Now, why am I telling you all this?  Because I stupidly didn’t mention this in the A-Z. I completely omitted to point out that the generic-specific dimension operates across the definite-indefinite one. 

Next time round, I’ll include the following chart (where the examples with asterisks are non standard, where the sign Ø stands for the zero article, and where I’ve included non-count nouns as well):

  generic specific
definite She plays the violin.         

The whale is a mammal.

(*The whales are mammals.)

(*I like most types of the music.)

She played the violin I gave her.

Can you see the whale over there?

The violins are too loud.

I didn’t like the music in the film. 

indefinite Let’s give her a violin.

A whale cannot breathe underwater.

Ø Whales cannot breathe underwater.

I like most types of Ø music.

I saw a nice violin in town yesterday.

Captain Ahab was killed by a whale.

There are Ø whales in the Mediterranean.

Listen: I can hear Ø music!


Does that make any sense?